At 7 years old, one of Penny Citrola’s favorite activities was watching "Jeopardy!" with her grandpa, Nick Citrola Sr.
“I just had so much fun playing the game,” Citrola remembers of the times with her grandpa, who died in 2007. “When I was 13, I started sending my postcard every year for the Teen Tournament.”
Appearing on the show as a teen wasn’t in the cards for the East Meadow native. But when it was finally meant to be, nothing was going to stop her.
Not computer woes. Not a lost dog. Not a snowstorm or a wayward deer. Not moving halfway around the world.
Citrola, now 32, won $27,800 on “Jeopardy!” episodes that aired Tuesday to Thursday. But the story of how she got there trumps the appearances themselves.
A self-described “nerd,” Citrola moved to Bozeman, Mont., in 2002 after graduating from East Meadow High School and Hofstra University, to pursue a masters of fine arts in science and natural history filmmaking from Montana State University.
She got her degree, married Montana native Joseph Menicucci, 34, and finally got around to taking the “Jeopardy!” online exam early in 2010.
“My Internet connection was crap,” Citrola said, slowing down her responses on timed questions. But apparently it wasn’t as bad as she thought.
“Miraculously, about a year later, I got an email. I didn’t believe it. It said, ‘We chose your name to audition in Salt Lake City in a month, can you make it?’ It was shocking because I hadn’t heard a thing. I thought I sucked wind so bad on that test I’d have to take it again.”
Citrola and friend Angela Bennett made the 7-hour drive from Bozeman to Salt Lake City in March 2011. After some sightseeing, they planned to get back to their hotel early so they could watch “Jeopardy!” the night before the audition.
But after getting off at the wrong rail stop, they found themselves being followed by a lost pit bull puppy all the way to their hotel. Bennett ended up fashioning a leash out of her scarf to keep the pup from getting away while Citrola darted upstairs to watch the show, then returned to trying to contact the authorities.
“We had attracted quite a crowd because it was a cute dog,” Citrola said. “A couple even came up and offered us money. They were checking her out. We were like, ‘We can’t make that decision. It’s not our dog.’” (As it turns out, a policeman who had stopped there saw a lost dog sign later in the evening, and the puppy was reunited with her owners.)
Things went much more smoothly at the audition during a mock game session.
“They were doing some kind of word game category, and the response was ‘Faberge Egg McMuffin.’ When they gave the answer I raised my hand, and one of the contestant coordinators said, ‘You with the great smile.’ It’s clear they’re casting for TV as much as smarts.”
Citrola did well enough to be placed in the contestant pool for 18 months. More importantly, she and Bennett made it home safely after getting caught in a snowstorm on the way back and hitting a deer.
“She was driving, but I was awake. I think it was in Idaho, but I don’t really know,” Citrola said. “I think we just clipped it. I hope it lived a long and happy life. We certainly didn’t destroy it or anything.”
Citrola was awaiting a contact from the show when her husband was offered a chemical engineering job at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.
“It [‘Jeopardy!’] actually came into play whether we going to move,” Citrola said.
When they decided to move, Citrola said, “I alerted them by email. ‘Just so you know, my cellphone will work for at least another few weeks. I’m not sure when it will be cut off.’”
They moved in the fall of last year, and Citrola now volunteers teaching English to kids. The phone was cut off. But the email still came, and Citrola was able to rework a trip to America this past July to travel to the “Jeopardy!” studio in Culver City, Calif., for show tapings.
East Meadow’s Elizabeth Mayo Chancey, a longtime friend of Citrola, ended up making the California trip with her.
Citrola won on Tuesday and Wednesday, running the table on Tuesday in the category “Word & Phrase Origins.” After struggling to buzz in first earlier in the game, she relaxed and got so comfortable she just started playing and wasn’t really paying attention to the scores.
All of a sudden, it was time for “Final Jeopardy,” but victory was already hers. She had more than twice as much money as her opponents. That’s when it got surreal.
“I’m looking at the scores, and I’m like, ‘Am I reading this wrong?’”
Citrola’s championship reign ended Thursday, but not before honoring her husband and father-in-law — supposedly the biggest Yankees fans Montana ever produced — by scoring well in the category “Baseball Stadiums.”
Said Citrola, “My husband was like, ‘It’s a good thing you got that, or you would’ve gotten kicked out of the family.’”