Susan McMillan on the set of “Jeopardy!” with the guest host, Dr. Mehmet Oz.  ‘Jeopardy!’ photo

With Susan McMillan on the “Jeopardy!” stage, it doesn’t feel like much of a competition.

McMillan, a 35-year-old professional Arabic translator and Army reservist from Portland, held a commanding lead through much of her debut on the popular TV quiz show and finished as champion after correctly answering two Daily Doubles and the Final Jeopardy! question. She breezed through categories of questions about history, opera and authors.

The episode was hosted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is in the middle of a two-week gig on the show. Celebrities, including Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper, have been lined up to fill in as guest hosts following the death of Alex Trebek, who hosted 37 seasons before he died of pancreatic cancer.

McMillan is a former reporter for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta. She left the newspaper in 2014 to enlist in the Army Reserve, where she received Arabic language training. She watched Friday’s episode with classmates from an Army leadership course at Fort Huachuca, an Army training center near the Mexican border in Arizona.

“I couldn’t believe how nervous I was, even knowing how all this was going to happen,” she said in a phone interview about the episode that was filmed two months ago.

After the show aired, she was inundated with messages from friends and family who had been cheering her on. That support, she said, “is probably the coolest part of the experience.”

McMillan has been a “Jeopardy!” fan since childhood. When she can, she watches recordings of the previous night’s show while eating lunch with her husband, Jason Singer, a former reporter and editor with the Portland Press Herald. She began her journey onto “Jeopardy!” in 2019, when Trebek told the world he was fighting pancreatic cancer.

Last April, she took the 50-question, online qualifying test. Although the producers do not officially tell you how many answers were correct, McMillan said she filmed herself taking the test and checked her responses later. Her score was in the 40s, she said.

After she passed successive rounds of the audition, “Jeopardy!” producers called her in December and asked her to come to Los Angeles. She filmed on the set in February after studying up on topics such as ballet and opera.

“It was exciting and a little surreal to be there after being a fan of the show for so many years,” she said.

When it came time to use the buzzer, McMillan had to figure out how to get the timing exactly right so she didn’t ring in too soon and be locked out.

“It took me some time to calibrate and learn how to listen for the end of the clue to know just when to ring in,” she said.

While preparing for the show, McMillan noticed the show frequently features clues about capitals, so she made sure to pay attention to them. That paid off in her first game, when she answered several related questions correctly.

During her appearance, McMillan told Oz about her goal to travel to all of the national parks with her husband. They have visited 25 of the 62 national parks together since 2011.

“Every time we go to one we just feel so grateful that these incredible places are open to the public and protected,” she said.

Her knowledge of national parks and her time spent with the Army in California came in handy with the Final Jeopardy! question: “In 1869 he moved to Yosemite Valley and was the first to say the area was formed by glacial erosion, a theory generally accepted today.”

McMillan, who wagered $10,000, correctly named John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Both of her competitors answered the question incorrectly.

“Those trips to the national parks you’re taking are paying off,” Oz told McMillan.

McMillan said Friday that she knew the answer as soon as the clue popped up on the screen.

“It turned out to be the perfect Final Jeopardy! for me,” she said.

McMillan finished with $35,600, and the show matched the winnings with a donation to charity. She will continue her “Jeopardy!” run on television Monday when she faces two new competitors.


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