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First Blind Player Wins Big on Jeopardy!

Editor's Note: Editors Note: The following article is reprinted from the Washington Post, October 24, 1999.

Eddie Timanus launches into John Belushi's famous monologue from Animal House, one of several classic movie bits he has memorised start to finish, like many in his Boomer generation.

Over? Its not over. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour?

Gathered around him in a sports bar in Sterling, Timanuss family and friends nod. They've heard it a million times. Anyway, they're not here for comedy. They're here to watch Timanus, for the second night in a row, demolish two opponents on televisions Jeopardy!

In the afterglow of his second $12,000-plus game-show victory, which they watch on a television set in the noisy bar, his pals plot to slip him the dinner check. Timanus, a sportswriter for USA Today, pays them no mind; he's simultaneously commenting on the musical selections in the jukeboxes and monitoring a dozen ball games being broadcast throughout the room. Oh, and he's totally blind.

The 31-year-old Reston man is the first blind contestant in the 16-year history of the syndicated TV show. But Timanus is not just a contestant: In two days of taping in August, he rattled off five straight victories, rolling up nearly $70,000 in winnings and advancing to the coveted Tournament of Champions in the spring a feat accomplished by only about half a dozen of the 400 contestants who appear on the show each year.

He's as unassuming and engaging as any other sports and trivia nut, trading barbs with friends and giving as good as he gets. His disability he lost his sight to retinal tumours at age 3 hasn't slowed him at all, and when Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek informs the audience that Timanus is blind, his coterie at the bar howls We know! We know! in mock irritation.

Near the end of his second appearance, Timanus picks the final square on the board, a Daily Double. Instantly, he calculates exactly how much hell need to win the game outright, before Final Jeopardy. And he does.

It isn't his first brush with show business. As a student at South Lakes High School, he appeared on the program Its Academic, so I kind a knew how to handle the TV thing, he says. I just decided to have fun with it and play to win.

He was born in St. Joseph, MO., the son of an itinerant radio disc jockey. From his earliest days, he liked to watch game shows with his mother, Terri. As a 6-year-old listening to the old Art Fleming-hosted Jeopardy! Timanus recalls telling her, The Daily Double squares are orange with yellow stripes, right, Mom?

He was right.

The family moved to Reston in 1981. At South Lakes, Timanus cruised through his advanced placement courses. On one episode of Its Academic, he successfully answered a question that involved a photograph.

He was an excellent student, and his blindness was never a problem, said Carolyn Slednik, a teacher of the visually impaired in Fairfax County. He was particularly excellent in math. He would dictate to me where to put the numbers in which columns.

As a youth, Timanus helped his father, Chuck, with statistics at sporting events that his dad was broadcasting. He refined his love of sports at Wake Forest University, where he graduated in 1990 with a degree in economics.

Not long after that, his mother appeared on Jeopardy! She did not win. In 1992, Timanus hooked up with USA Today, where he compiles the papers Coaches Top 25 college football and basketball polls. He also writes the Friday college football roundup, plus feature articles on a variety of sports.

He does most of his reporting by phone but occasionally covers a game in person, mainly lacrosse. His father accompanies him, providing play-by-play and keeping statistics. Timanus uses a computer program that speaks, allowing him to hear when he's typed or downloaded from the Internet.

I learned how to type very, very early, he said. And I watch a lot of games. Its kind of knowing what to listen for.

As Jeopardy! fans know, the game can be difficult for even top notch trivia buffs. Timanus had been trying to make the cut for years, taking the written test four times before being invited to a second round of tryouts last year. They don't keep score at the tryouts, he said. They're just making sure you don't go blugblugblug when its time to answer. Timanus survived that round and a series of interviews. The producers wanted him, but in December some of the shows co-ordinators returned to this area to visit him one more time. They wanted to see if he could handle the buzzer contestants must use, and find out whether he'd need special accommodations.

I said if I just had a Braille list of the categories, Id be fine, Timanus said. For Final Jeopardy, he types his answers on a keyboard.

When producers told him to book a flight to Los Angeles in August, Timanus called David Sher, a close friend and local theatre producer he jokingly refers to as Shakespeare Boy. (Sher returns the favour with an edgy barb of his own: As Timanus picked up the dinner check last week, Sher said, Thanks for dinner, Freak.)

The two flew to California and endured two days of taping at Sony Pictures studios, waiting for Timanuss turn at bat. Contestants wait offstage together during the taping; after each show ends, two new names are picked out of a hat to face the reigning champion in the next round.

In his first show, Timanuss correct identification and pronunciation of the Peloponnesian War, vaulted him to victory.

The only accommodation producers made for Timanus besides the Braille listings was to eliminate video-related questions. And because contestants cant buzz in until Trebek finishes reading the questions, being able to see the board was only a slight advantage to Timanuss competition.

He's remarkable, and he's such a nice guy, said Laine Sutten, spokeswoman for the show, adding that Timanus won more money than anyone else has this season.

Now the national media are on Timanuss heels. Talk show gigs are not far off. I'm trying not to get the celebrity head going, he said.