It was an experience she will think of often -- especially while taking in the sights of Greece and Saint Croix of the Virgin Islands.
Tameka Thomas, a program manager for the Combat Rescue Helicopter program in the Rotary Wing Branch, Special Operations Forces Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was one of the lucky ones to actually make it on the game show "Wheel of Fortune" and spend some time with its host, Pat Sajak.
Ms. Thomas solved several puzzles and was the big winner on the April 8 show. She won two trips and a gift certificate to H20, raking in more than $24,000 in winnings and moving on to the final puzzle (bonus) round.
"This has been amazing," she said. "I've been a couch player for so many years, imagining myself on that stage, and it was every bit as majestic as I thought it would be. I met so many wonderful people from all over the country and was shown genuine hospitality by everyone in the studio. I was also humbled by the overwhelming support shown by my family, friends and coworkers. Over 60 people came out to watch the show with me, and I've already received dozens of congratulatory emails from people at WPAFB (many of whom I've never met). This is an experience I'll never forget."
Her only regret was not choosing the letter "H" in the bonus round.
"The crazy part is that I was back in the contestant lounge talking to other contestants before my show, and I told them that 'H' was a good letter to call during the bonus round because it can change the sound of the letters around it. Guess what letter I didn't call that probably would have led to me solving the puzzle and winning $45,000? But, I'll try not to dwell on it while I take an island-hopping adventure through the Greek Islands, a trip to Saint Croix and enjoy the rest of my winnings."
The final puzzle in the bonus round was a phrase and she chose the letters C, D, P and A, which did not turn many letters for her. The puzzle was "HIGHLY PROFITABLE," and it could have been that if she could have also claimed the final prize of $45,000.
Ms. Thomas went with her husband, Darrin, and four children to the Wheelmobile event in Monroe, Ohio, in October 2012 for a chance to audition for the show. Later, she auditioned at the Hyatt in Cincinnati on Nov. 8.
"The process ran so smoothly," she said of the audition. "There were over 100 people there, and they filed us into classroom-style seating. We played several rounds of 'Wheel of Fortune' with a small wheel and a projector screen. They'd yell out your first name, you stand up, decide whether to spin and call your letter. They got through everyone in the room like a well-oiled machine."
Ms. Thomas then had to take a written test in which participants had five minutes to solve as many puzzles as they could.
"It was quite difficult," she said. "There were about 20 partially filled-in puzzles, and I solved about half of them. I was a bit bummed until we took a break, and I heard people in the halls saying they couldn't solve any. They called us all back in and said that 15 people made it to the final round. They called out the names and mine was one of them. We then played a few more intense rounds of 'Wheel of Fortune', and they thanked us for coming and said we'd find out by mail in two weeks if we were selected."
Ms. Thomas received a phone call one week later.
"I walked into my house after a long workday, and my daughter said she answered a strange phone call. She didn't get a name, but said it was a lady who sounded really, really excited," Ms. Thomas said. "Yep, it was the 'Wheel of Fortune' call. They also sent an e-mail asking if I could make it for a Nov. 29, 2012, taping in Los Angeles. Well ... yeah! I was so excited that my kids and I were literally jumping up and down all over the house. I had two weeks to plan my travel arrangements, my hair, my outfit, what guests would I bring."
Her cousin, Takisha Martin, who also works on base, went to the show with her along with two other good friends, Shannon Griffin and Dorothy Cuffie.
"The time flew by and before I knew it I was on a plane to L.A. 'Wheel of Fortune' had a shuttle that picked up contestants from the hotel to take us to the studio," she said. "The staff was waiting outside the studio to welcome us and guide us in. It was surreal -- hallways filled with 'Wheel' memorabilia, Vanna (White)'s dresses and pictures from over the years of the show. From 8 a.m. until noon, we filled out paperwork, received all kinds of presentations on rules and helpful game strategies.
"They taped six shows that day. I'm not sure it has completely sunk in. The bright lights, the makeup artists and the audience cheering us on were very overwhelming."
Ms. Thomas enjoyed every moment of the show including meeting Ms. White, who turns the letters on the show, and host, Mr. Sajak.
"Vanna came into the contestant room before the show and had a long chat with us -- she was very down to earth," Ms. Thomas said.
"She explained how 'Wheel of Fortune' was a game where everyone could win and encouraged us all to play as a team. We only saw Pat during the show, but he was also friendly. Jim (the announcer) was very supportive and encouraging as were the contestant coordinators who reminded me so many times to breath and offered water to sip at each break."
Ms. Thomas finally got over the jitters.
"When the show got going, I knew the first toss-up, but was too slow to the buzzer so I had to regroup," she said. "Pat introduced each of us, and I was so nervous that I almost forgot my kids' names. Despite my nervousness, I couldn't let myself be here -- on this show I watch every night -- living a dream -- and not do my best. The second toss-up came, and I was the first to buzz in. With a little money on the board you'd think my nerves would calm -- nope! I was still trembling as I took the first spin.
"The wheel was good to me. I knew the puzzle fairly quickly but out of nervousness decided to spin again to just to be sure I didn't lose all of my winnings on a bad solve. It was a risky choice, but a good one. I racked up in that round and gained a little confidence to keep it going. The time went by so fast and before I knew it Pat was standing next to me telling me I was going to the bonus round."
Ms. Thomas has to wait 120 days to claim any prizes, so the earliest she can go on a trip is early in August.
She wants to go Greece in the fall and Saint Croix next spring.