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University Students Win Big on Wheel of Fortune

Almost anybody who watches television in this country has become quite familiar with those three words in the past 28 years. The multi-colored wheel keeps on spinning, and generations of young Americans can say they've grown up watching and wondering what it would be like to give it a whirl, buy a vowel or tell Pat Sajak that they'd "like to solve the puzzle."

Sophomore James Lowder of Shreveport took home over $40,000 in cash and prizes, including a trip to New York City.
Photo: Billy Gomila/Video: Frank Bourgeois/University Relations

Three LSU students recently had the opportunity to discover just what it feels like, as James Lowder, Arquavious Gordon and Otisha Reed participated in the game show's annual "College Week," which was filmed in New Orleans.

"It's a great energy," said Sajak, who has hosted more than 6,000 episodes of the show. "College kids have a lot of pent up energy in reserve, and it just kind of all spills out. It's fun for us."

"It makes us feel young again," added Vanna White, his long-time cohort.

The energy certainly came pouring out of the LSU contingent. Competing against fellow students from other universities in the state and region, Lowder and Gordon each were the big winners in their respective episodes, solving the final bonus puzzle and taking home thousands of dollars in cash and prizes, including vacations and, in Gordon's case, a new car.

"It was all so unbelievable," said Gordon, a junior from Sunflower, Miss., majoring in history. "This was one of the most amazing things I've ever done."

"It was great," said Lowder. "Just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I still can't believe it happened."

Reed, a junior from Baton Rouge majoring in mass communication didn't have quite the success of her classmates, but still considered the experience a dream come true.

"It was awesome to meet Pat Sajak and Vanna White," she said. "Vanna is so glamorous – the T.V. does her no justice."

All three students have grown up watching the show, and discovered that being an arm-chair puzzle-solver is nothing compared to the real thing.

"It's a completely different experience," said Gordon, who added that he began watching the show evenings with his mother as soon as he began to read and spell. "When the pressure is on you, and you're trying to focus on everything that is going on, an answer that seems really simple can just kind of slip right by you."

Lowder seemed to breeze through his first two puzzles, and noted that once he felt that he had his bearings on spinning the wheel and chose his first few letters his nerves calmed.

"My whole mentality was just to have as much fun as possible with it," he explained.

But when it came time for the final bonus round, the sophomore kinesiology major from Shreveport suddenly found himself much more nervous.

"I was going to call a totally different letter," Lowder said of the bonus puzzle, "Seeing a Show in the Big Apple," which earned him a trip to New York. "But I just kind of blurted out what popped in my head. Just threw it out there. I still can't believe it."

Reed was surprised at how difficult it actually was getting the wheel to move.

"In the auditions, somebody told me to act like its heavy, and I thought they were joking," she said. "But it really is heavy, and you really do have to lean in and push."

The tapings took place over the course of Saturday, April 16, with Lowder going on first, followed by Reed and then Gordon. Following Lowder's win, the other two felt like the pressure was on to keep up that success.

"When James won, I was so excited for him," Reed said with a laugh. "It was like we'd been best friends and knowing each other for years. And then he walked over to me and he was like 'okay, now you have to bring it home too!' So there was a little bit of pressure."

"I definitely felt the pressure after James won," added Gordon. "And everybody in my area, the red contestant space, won on the shows before mine, so I wanted to keep that streak going."

The prizes were pretty nice too.

"Now I have a car," said Gordon, who took home a Mini Cooper in addition to a Hawaiian vacation. "So I get to enter my senior year finally having a car on campus. That's pretty cool."

For America's most famous letter-turner, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, any chance to be back in the South is something she enjoys.

"There's so much energy going on," said White. "I grew up in North Myrtle Beach, S. C., and I feel like I'm back home."

The return trip to New Orleans was significant for the show. The last time Wheel of Fortune filmed in the Crescent City, the stay was cut short by emergency evacuation due to Hurricane Katrina.

"It was a pretty tough time last time we were here," said Harry Friedman, the show's veteran executive producer. "Our hearts still stayed here with the people who had to stay behind and suffer through (Katrina) and rebuild. And we're pretty impressed with the resiliency of the whole community."

Friedman was further impressed by the energy of the students on hand.

"There's a lot of energy here," he said. "The students were very high energy, and very smart too. We expect that wherever we go, but I think the sports rivalries in the South have a lot to do with how competitive the students are in other areas as well."

Gordon noted as much, competing against students from two of LSU's biggest rivals, Alabama and Arkansas.

"There was no way I could let two other SEC schools win," he said. "I had to represent LSU, especially on national television."

Footage provided by Wheel of Fortune