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'Jeopardy!' contestants recall Alex Trebek's final episode: 'He brought his A game'

Yoshie Hill, Cliff Chang and Jim Galligan shared their firsthand experiences competing on the same stage with the legendary game show host.
"Jeopardy!" contestants Jim Galligan, Cliff Chang and Yoshie Hill were impressed by their encounters with the late Alex Trebek.
"Jeopardy!" contestants Jim Galligan, Cliff Chang and Yoshie Hill were impressed by their encounters with the late Alex Trebek."Jeopardy!"
/ Source: TODAY

Spoiler alert: This article reveals the outcome of the "Jeopardy!” episode that was first aired on Friday, Jan. 8.

Alex Trebek's final episode as the longtime host of "Jeopardy!" aired on Friday and the contestants featured in the episode are opening up about what it was like to share the stage with the late quizmaster.

Trebek died at the age of 80 last November, after living with pancreatic cancer for over a year. His death on Nov. 8 came just 10 days after he taped the episode that was broadcast yesterday.

The last three contestants to meet and work with Trebek for the episode were returning champion Yoshie Hill and new players Cliff Chang and Jim Gilligan. In new interviews, all three competitors reflected on how they were in awe of Trebek's work ethic, his dedication and his continued charm, even in the face of immense pain.

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Hill, the defending champion, told TODAY in an email, "Of course, when I reported to the 'Jeopardy!' set in October to tape my episodes, no one knew that these would be Alex Trebek's final episodes as host.

"I was able to observe him from the audience as I awaited my contestant turn onstage. As he walked to his lectern, he seemed to be moving slowly, and my immediate thought was, 'The man is in pain.' But as soon as the cameras rolled, it was if a switch had been turned on, and he was fully the familiar Alex I had always seen on TV ... professional, engaged, and 100% present."

Hill added, "You would not have known how ill he was. He brought his A game to each episode that was shot. Articulate, wryly humorous, and radiating his good-natured gentlemanly decency."

Yoshie Hill returned to defend her championship on Friday's episode of "Jeopardy!""Jeopardy!"

The executive assistant from California recalled, "When it was my turn to compete, the first time Alex said my name was a total thrill! Our conversations, though brief, were delightful. He made such strong eye contact, and his intense yet genial focus made me feel I was the most important person in the studio. The enormous effort it must have taken to maintain that level of engagement with every contestant!"

Hill added that Trebek's presence was special. "He elicited something unique and special from each one. During commercial breaks he seemed to be conserving his energy, but when on-camera he was on top of his game again. It was comforting to hear his familiar 'Good for you!', 'Go again,' and other phrases. Memorably, at the end of the final episode, when I lost in Final Jeopardy, I was the recipient of his last 'Ohhh, Sorry!.'

"I feel so privileged to have spent that brief time with a man I admired so deeply, a memory I will always treasure. I had been in the presence of an extraordinary man."

Gilligan was excited to have made it onto the game show after trying to do so for over three decades, almost as long as Trebek had been the host."Jeopardy!"

Gilligan, a professor who lives in San Francisco, told Deseret News that he had tried for more than half his life to get on "Jeopardy!" and had been a fan of the show for over 30 years. He was excited to join the show in 2019 and when he figured out that his appearance would end up becoming Trebek's final episode, he was honored. “That’s television history,” he said. “It makes it worth it to have waited this long to get on the show.”

Gilligan, who eventually won Friday's episode, said he was awestruck by Trebek as well and the episode taping flew by. “It was probably the most rapid 30 minutes of my life,” he told the online news site. “You walk onto the set and it’s just like in a dream. Something that I have seen for over half my life, five nights a week … and there I was!”

Despite his health condition, Gilligan said Trebek was still in top form. “Even though his health was not great and we all knew that, he didn’t use it as an excuse. He was there 100%. We got Alex,” Gilligan recalled. “If I could be as enthusiastic and as vivacious and as classy as he is when I turn 80, I’ll be happy."

On Instagram, the "Jeopardy!" show account shared a tribute to Trebek to coincide with Friday's episode.

"Simply the best. Thank you, Alex," read the caption that accompanied a video showcasing Trebek's three-decade run as host of the game show.

Chang, who lost to Gilligan in the episode, told the Chicago Tribune that at the time, he had no idea how significant the episode he appeared on would become, not just for him but for the whole "Jeopardy!" community.

The software engineering manager said, “I was a little bit worried when we were taping, like, ‘Oh, is Alex going to be OK?’ But he was on top of his game," said the Wilmette, Illinois native. "I was really pleased and proud of him for doing so well and seeming so sharp and healthy that when I found out that he passed, there was a sort of disbelief, like, 'But he was doing so well.' He taped a great episode.”

Chang appreciated that Trebek made "knowing stuff" a cool thing."Jeopardy!"

Chang said he admired Trebek for “normalizing being cool for knowing stuff, in a way that not a lot of other people did.”

And while "Jeopardy!" has resumed production with former champion Ken Jennings as interim host, Chang said that no one will ever replace Trebek for him.

“There’s a lot of conversation right now about what the future of ‘Jeopardy!’ is going to look like, and I have a lot of faith and curiosity about what that group of people is going to come up with because I think it will be different,” Chang said. “I don’t think they’re going to try to find Alex II because there’s no one quite like Alex, but I’m really curious and excited to see what it will be next.”

Gilligan echoed Chang's sentiments.

“There’s never going to be another Alex Trebek,” he said. “To say that he’s iconic is kind of an understatement, and I am just incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to appear on the show while he was still hosting. It was the thrill of a lifetime, and It’s definitely going to be something that I want mentioned in my obituary.”