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La Jollan and UCSD student competes on ‘Jeopardy!’ soon after brain injury

La Jolla resident and UC San Diego Ph.D. student Andrew Kleinschmidt competes on "Jeopardy!"
La Jolla resident and UC San Diego Ph.D. student Andrew Kleinschmidt competed on “Jeopardy!” in April, two months after suffering a brain injury in a skiing accident. His episode aired July 30.
(Courtesy of Andrew Kleinschmidt)

Andrew Kleinschmidt says the experience taught him to appreciate life.

Though he grew up in a “‘Jeopardy!’ house,” La Jolla resident and UC San Diego Ph.D. student Andrew Kleinschmidt never really took the prospect of being on the show seriously.

“My mom always said I could do it,” he said with a laugh. After trying out for the college tournament and one other time, Kleinschmidt tried again in 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This time he succeeded, and his episode aired last week.

For the record:

10:09 a.m. Aug. 6, 2021This article has been updated to correct when Andrew Kleinschmidt’s “Jeopardy!” appearance was filmed.

But the path to getting on the “Jeopardy!” stage was a whirlwind — an almost devastating one in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury two months before he was set to compete.

When he was growing up, Kleinschmidt’s family watched “Jeopardy!” A lot.

“My mom, my aunts and my grandma would text each other about contestants and what categories they were doing well in,” he said. “Since my mom said I would be good at it, I took the anytime test [for possible participation] and tried it a couple of times.”

When he finally got the call that he could compete this year, it was at the weirdest possible time, Kleinschmidt said.

In February, while skiing with friends, he took a jump and landed on his head.

“It didn’t take long for people to realize something was really wrong,” Kleinschmidt said. “It was a very real possibility that I might die. There were some really scary days where they were monitoring my brain stem. I was in the ICU, then the step-down unit, then I was rehabbing for a week before I was able to have memories.”

He recovered “slowly and then very quickly,” he said.

“My uncle is a neurologist and he thought I was a goner,” Kleinschmidt said. “My mom said while I was in the hospital, she just wanted me to be able to feel joy again. She was willing to wheel me around but just wanted me to be able to be happy.”

Other early prognoses posited that if he could answer to basic commands, that was good. It wasn’t anticipated that he’d soon be able to go on national TV and come up with the answer to this query: “One of Gabriel Faure’s most famous pieces is his Pavane, a centuries-old dance that gets its name from this Italian ‘P’ city.”

While he was recovering in the hospital, Kleinschmidt got the call from “Jeopardy!” producers that he was scheduled to compete.

“They were all excited. They said, ‘We have great news! You’re going to be on the show!’” he said. “My family was excited and very nervous about it.”

When Kleinschmidt arrived on the set in April, the audience, due to COVID-related precautions, consisted of contestants waiting to play.

“They film an entire week’s worth of episodes in one day,” he said.

At the start of the filming, returning champion Matt Amodio had won three consecutive games and $101,400.

“When I heard that, I thought, ‘Huh, he could be really good; this could be interesting,’” Kleinschmidt recalled. “Then I watched him just steamroll player after player, game after game, and I knew pretty quickly I would go up against him.”

Kleinschmidt went into the match with a “whatever happens, happens” attitude, which “actually took a lot of the pressure off me,” he said.

He focused on making the most of the experience and getting to meet guest host LaVar Burton, known for his acting roles in “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and as the host of “Reading Rainbow.”

Andrew Kleinschmidt (right) stands on the set of "Jeopardy!" with guest host LaVar Burton.
Andrew Kleinschmidt (right) stands on the set of “Jeopardy!” with guest host LaVar Burton.
(Courtesy of Andrew Kleinschmidt)

“I felt so lucky, because they shoot the whole week in one day, that LaVar Burton was going to be there for just one day and it’s the day I got to be there,” Kleinschmidt said.

Upon landing on the Daily Double question, “I got to say, ‘I’ll make it a true Daily Double, LaVar.’ I felt so cool. Nothing else mattered.”

Kleinschmidt’s appearance aired July 30. (The Italian “P” city, by the way, is Padua, which he got right.)

Ultimately walking away with the $2,000 second-place prize, Kleinschmidt said the experience — and the past six months — have taught him to appreciate life.

“Before, I had tunnel vision and thought I had to do x, y, z to be happy,” he said. “Now I know I have this one life and something weird could happen at any time. I feel like I can focus on different things that I think would be cool.”

For the next few months, Kleinschmidt’s focus is on getting his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from UCSD. His research is centered on electronics made out of plastic and using simulations to theorize what might be happening with certain atoms. For example, he created a solar cell out of plastic that could be placed on a tarp and wrinkled and folded, like the tarp, but still operate.

“The dream is that people will do these simulations and instead of taking the year or two to synthesize these plastic electronics, draw it on a computer and two weeks later see how it will behave and see if something is worth making or not making,” he said. “We can learn things so much faster.” ◆