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Mt. Abraham alum lands on Jeopardy!

BRISTOL — If the clue was “The Mount Abraham Union High School graduate who appeared on Jeopardy! last week,” the answer would be “Who is Daniel Eling?”
Eling, 36, earned a spot on the popular quiz show after three years of trying. He said it was a lifelong dream of his.
“I wanted to be on the show for a long time, for 25 years,” he said.
Eling grew up in Bristol and graduated from Mount Abe in 1996. After a stint at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Eling finished his degree at Virginia Tech. He now lives in Arlington, Va., and works as a naval architect on military and commercial projects.
He said he’s always had an interest in trivia. He was a member of Mount Abe’s Quiz Bowl team and competed in the televised state championship match his junior year.
The road to becoming a contestant on Jeopardy!, which first aired on NBC in 1964, is an arduous one.
First, candidates take an online quiz with questions similar to those on the show. Jeopardy! keeps the results of the quiz secret, but invites those who score high enough to in-person tryouts around the country. There, candidates play in mock games and even practice the personal interviews that host Alex Trebek has with contestants on the show. After the tryout, candidates wait to see if they are selected over the coming year.
“They say, ‘We’ve got your name; we’ll call you if we need you,’” Eling explained.
Of the 12,000 people who take the online test, 3,000 are invited to in-person tryouts and about 300 appear on the show each year.
After being invited to the Washington, D.C. tryout three times, Eling got the call this fall, and flew out to Los Angeles for a taping in mid-November.
In his game, Eling was pitted against an information systems analyst from New Jersey and a stay-at-home dad from Maryland.
He led after the first round, due in part to his correct answer on the Daily Double for the clue “It was the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture” (answer: The Godfather, Part II).
The second round proved to be trickier, and Eling stumbled early. His answer of “rhythm gymnastics” for the clue “Pack your ribbons for this Olympic sport,” was rejected by Trebek. The correct answer was rhythmic gymnastics. 
At the end of the second round, Eling had fallen to third place, but with a respectable $11,800. The Final Jeopardy category was “royals,” and Eling decided to wager all but $2.
The clue was “He was the last English monarch to die in battle,” and all the contestants correctly identified Richard III. Despite his aggressive bet, Eling remained in third place with $23,598, just behind the two other contestants.
He said while he would have liked to win the game, he was excited to be on the show. Eling said he was surprised by the breakneck pace of the game. 
“My overall impression is that it’s fast,” Eling said. “It feels incredibly frantic. At this level, everybody knows almost everything on the board.”
The most difficult part, he explained, was timing when to buzz in, which contestants cannot do until a light flashes on the game board.
In a split second, contestants have to read the question, think of the answer and watch for the light all at the same time — a challenge Eling said is difficult to understand when watching the show on television.
Since Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, two days a week, Eling said he got to meet a lot of other contestants on the show. Contact with Trebek, who has hosted the show since 1984, is limited. Eling said the best opportunity to chat with the host is at the end of the show, while the credits roll.
Eling said he hopes Trebek will play as a contestant after he retires as host.
“I would love to see him play, because he’s got to be good,” he said.
Between tapings and the air date of the show, contestants agree not to reveal the results of their game. Eling said he didn’t tell anyone how he did, not even his family, in keeping the spirit of the show.
Back in Virginia, Eling said his friends and girlfriend were honored to be in the presence of a Jeopardy! contestant. Some criticized Trebek for not accepting Eling’s answer on the gymnastics question.
“Some insisted I was robbed for that one,” Eling said. “But all in all they said they were impressed, which is the most important thing, because it’s entertainment.” 
Eling encouraged fans of Jeopardy!, which airs five nights a week, to try their luck in the show’s contestant quiz.
“If people are fans of the show, even if you don’t make it, you can have a lot of fun taking part in the process and learning about the wagering strategies,” he said.
Reporter Zach Despart is at [email protected].

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