Nerves were never a problem for 10-year-old Sallie Rawlston, not while the cameras were on her, the buzzer was in her hands and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek was standing a few feet away, firing questions.
Not even when she got her first question wrong.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, well,’ ” says Sallie, of Soddy-Daisy. “I was a little slow after that but when I started getting it right, I was on a roll. Within five minutes, I went from $2,000 to $11,800 and was in the lead for a few minutes.”
Sallie, who’s now 11, appeared Tuesday night on “Jeopardy!” as part of the weeklong Kids Week Tournament. When all was said and done in the game show episode, which was filmed in February, she came in second and won $2,000.
“I was 10 years old and I won $2,000,” says Sallie, who is a sixth-grader at Soddy-Daisy Middle School. “How many 10-year-olds have $2,000? I had fun.”
“The glass is always half full for Sallie,” says her mother, Gloria Rawlston. “We told her from the beginning that, no matter how it turned out, she was a winner.”
With her jump-up-and-down enthusiasm, near-constant parade of funny facial expressions, fiercely energetic pressing of the buzzer button and super-cheerful personality, Sallie was a big hit with both the audience and host Trebek. At one point during a “Daily Double” question — where Sallie was the only one allowed to answer — she still shoved hard on the buzzer.
“You don’t have to do that Sallie,” Trebek told her. Then, when she answered correctly — “William Penn” — and smiled broadly after winning $1,000, he asked: “Are you having fun, Sallie?”
“Yes!” she quickly replied.
Sallie’s general enthusiasm — her dad says she’s just a “happy kid” — convinced her parents late last fall that she should audition for Kids Week, despite their apprehensions. Sallie told her parents that she wanted to take the show’s online test.
“We tried talking her out of it, telling her there would thousands of applicants and that some kids would probably get help taking the online test,” says her father, Mark Rawlston, a retired Chattanooga police officer. “We didn’t want her to be disappointed. She said she wanted to do it anyway, so we let her.”
But Sallie would not be denied and a few days later she took the 30-minute test online.
“She had 20 seconds to answer each question,” her dad says. “She did it on her own, and it was a good thing, too. She knew more of the answers than we did.”
Two weeks later, the Rawlstons received an email inviting Sallie to “Jeopardy!” auditions in New Orleans. In early December, the family drove to New Orleans where Sallie, one of nearly 100 kids, auditioned for the show there, took another test, was interviewed and played the game against other youngsters.
“They told parents that if we didn’t hear from them it didn’t mean our children wouldn’t go to college or that they wouldn’t be successful. It just meant they weren’t selected,” Mark Rawlston says.
On Jan. 3, they got the call. Sallie had to be in Los Angeles on Feb. 4. At 10, she was going to be the youngest contestant on Kids Week.
“After my parents got the call, they called me to come downstairs,” Sallie recalls. “I walked into the kitchen and they were videotaping me and they called me ‘Miss Jeopardy.’ When they told me the news, I started jumping up and down and screaming.”
Sony Pictures Television, producer of “Jeopardy!,” paid for Sallie’s and one parent’s airfare to Los Angeles, their hotel room and expenses, Mark Rawlston says. Both parents flew out with her and visited Hollywood Boulevard, Disneyland and a museum during their four-day trip. The show was filmed on a Monday, the last day.
“She wasn’t nervous at all during the show,” her father says. “My wife and I were. It was the second most stressful 30 minutes of my life.” (Most stressful was Sallie’s birth, he says.)
The hardest part of the experience was not being able to tell people about the results of the show before it aired, says Gloria Rawlston. Under “Jeopardy!” rules, only close family members can be told, she says.
“We decided to not tell anyone,” she says. “It was just easier that way because we didn’t want to make anyone feel left out.”
On Tuesday, the Rawlstons and 75 family members and friends gathered at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hixson to watch the show.
“She had a blast being the center of attention,” Mark Rawlston says. “A hush fell over the room when she missed her first question, but when she went on a run of getting everything correct and went into the lead, everyone started cheering.”
The Final Jeopardy category was “Toy Brands” with the question: “In 1966 this company produced 706 million elements of its product; in 2011, it produced 36 billion.”
None of the three contestants could identify the correct answer of Lego. Sallie’s answer of “Hasbro” and a $9,000 wager landed her in second-place.
“Did you know Lego is an independent company?” she asks. “I know now.”
She received her $2,000 check on Tuesday and already has plans for it.
“I’m going to buy pigs, goats and chickens for people in Third World countries. I’ll save a little for college, and I’ll buy books to read,” she says.
Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...