'Jeopardy!' champ keeps mum on his success

Baltimore's Justin Sausville won't answer too many questions about his quiz-show experience

  • Justin Sausville, who lives in Baltimore, is the current Jeopardy! champion.
Justin Sausville, who lives in Baltimore, is the current Jeopardy!… (Jeopardy Productions Inc,…)
August 14, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Justin Sausville of Mount Washington is a whiz at the brainy TV game show "Jeopardy!" — and he's proving just as stellar at "I've Got a Secret."

In effect, he has reigned as "Jeopardy!" champ for a staggering two weeks. He scored back-to-back wins on the July 28 and July 29 episodes. Then "Jeopardy" broke for summer vacation — and won't come back until Sept. 19.

Sausville knows exactly what will happen that night. He recorded his return match on Aug. 2, because "Jeopardy!" tapes multiple shows per day, weeks or months in advance.

But according to his agreement with the show, Sausville can't tell anyone the outcome — and he's sure he won't, no matter how hard co-workers and friends prod and poke him into giving himself away.

Sausville ran the same verbal gauntlet after he flew to Los Angeles on March 28 to record the episodes that aired at the end of July. For four months he endured a genial inquisition.

"Some of the questions people ask are pretty crude," Sausville, a boyish 30-year-old, said in his apartment last week, while preparing a gumbo dinner for his family. "Like, 'Hey, Justin, how did you do your second game out there?' But they could also get a little more sophisticated, like 'What were your final Jeopardy questions?'"

He nearly tripped up when asked, "What are the occupations of the people you played?" It was easier to ignore ploys that were annoyingly blunt, like: "Well, Justin, if you're not talking about it, you just must have done terribly."

Through it all, Sausville held firm — yet another testament to his mental toughness. "You're the Jeopardy champion, and you've won close to $60,000, and it's hard to put out of your mind. But this time, people knew I was holding it close — there was no point harassing me about it."

Sausville's strongest ally is his wife Kristin, 31. "He didn't tell me what happened, either," she said as she corralled their lively sons Matthew, who'll be 4 in two weeks, and Ben, who is 21/2. She and Justin decided that he should keep her in the dark, too, "to protect me from my friends badgering me the way his friends badger him."

Justin and Kirstin appear to be completely in sync. They met on "It's Academic," when Justin was playing for Gonzaga High (in D.C.) and Kristin for Chantilly (in Virginia), and got acquainted on the quiz-bowl tournament circuit. By now, they don't just finish each other's sentences but concoct their own dry comedy routines.

"We crossed paths at tournaments a couple of times — we even played each other once," Justin said. He could barely get out that his team was victorious before Kristin added, "Yes, they won — on the third tiebreaker!"

What attracted them to quiz games was the novelty of turning arcane information into sport. Kristin started to say, "If you're a high school kid who knows a lot of trivia … " and Justin finished, "There are few opportunities to exercise that. There's a lot of satisfaction in knowing esoterica, but frequently that has to be its own satisfaction. If you can attach points, as in 'It's Academic,' or better still, 'dollars,' as in 'Jeopardy,' that makes it even better."

In May 2009, Justin saw that "Jeopardy!" was holding a contestant search in D.C. He made it into the contestant pool and was told, "If we need you, we'll call you in the next 18 months." A year and a half passed. "Then, in late February 2011, I got a call out of the clear blue sky, saying, 'Hey, do you still want to be on?'"

"I'm incredibly proud of him," said Kristin. "I know it's something he wanted to do his entire life. I tried out in 2005 — I got into the contestant pool, but they didn't call me. And Justin was so supportive of me throughout that process. I think I'm happier it worked out for him than if it had worked out for me. I think he did better than I would've, and I think it meant a lot."

Justin went to Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee. Kristin attended Denison University in Ohio. They said they did "the long-distance thing" until Justin entered medical school at the University of Maryland and Kristin moved back to the area to be near him. They were married Jan. 1, 2005. "It's an easy day to remember," Justin joked, "and the year even ends in a five. It's perfect!"

He entered the urology program at the University of Maryland and finished his residency at Baltimore's VA Hospital in June. "It was only because of the outstanding support from my program director that I was even able to get time off to go on 'Jeopardy!' … I was a chief resident, and it's a busy rotation."

In the second year of his five-year residency, he signed up with the Army Reserves, which paid him a stipend as well as a portion of his student loans. He'll be a reservist for eight years — two years of service for every year of support. "I'd been interested in military medicine for some time," Sausville said, "and this gave Kristin the opportunity to leave her job and take care of the kids."

Last Wednesday, his Army duffel bag was packed — he left the next morning to begin his training as an Army captain in San Antonio. When he returns, he will join Union Hospital in Elkton as a staff urologist. The family plans to relocate to a house in Delaware, just a few miles from his new job.

Justin said his mother "used to watch 'Jeopardy!' with me all the time when I was in elementary school." She passed away shortly after his audition. Kristin said, "She at least got to know that Justin was in the contestant pool."

"She wished me luck," Justin said. "And my memories of watching 'Jeopardy!' with her were an inspiration to do well."

And — you can't fault a reporter for trying — how well did he do?

"At least I didn't embarrass myself," Justin muttered.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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