Middletown resident Danielle Brinkley-Bowers could barely watch the bonus round of "Wheel of Fortune" Tuesday night.
"Pick an 'H,'" she shouted the big screen television at Buffalo Wild Wings. "The answer is 'Just a Hunch'! Pick an 'H'!"
But the 39-year-old medical assistant at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children knew it was too late.
After all, six months had passed since she flew to Los Angeles to compete on her all-time favorite game show, where she racked up $19,800 in winnings before coming up just short of a $40,000 prize in the bonus round.
"I don't know what happened," she said after watching her nationally-televised debut with about 30 family, friends and co-workers. "I just drew a blank."
Brinkley-Bowers said she'll always be a little disappointed she couldn't solve that final puzzle. But that still won't take away from the thrill of living out a lifelong dream.
"Honestly, getting the chance to be on the show is even better than winning the money," she said. "I've been a 'Wheel of Fortune' fanatic ever since I was in elementary school, so this was it for me."
Brinkley-Bowers' journey to primetime began early last year when her 16-year-old son Deonte, a junior at Middletown High School, entered her name on the "Wheel of Fortune" website.
That got her to an audition in Atlantic City with about 50 other hopefuls, which led to an invitation to Los Angeles.
"Oh, I was snapping when I got that letter," she said. "You actually have to pay for your own flight and hotel room while you're out there, but when 'Wheel of Fortune' calls, you find the money, even if you have to put some other things on hold."
Brinkley-Bowers also made sure to buy a plane ticket for her mother, Townsend resident Vickey Brinkley, who's been playing along with her daughter for years.
"They tape like six episodes at once, and hers was last, so I sat in the audience clapping the whole day," said Vickey, who even got introduced on air. "When finally she came out, I told everyone, 'That's my baby! She's doing it!"
Brinkey-Bowers father, Dana Brinkley Sr., said he had no doubt his daughter would do well on the show.
"It's all she ever watched as a kid," he said. "We always sat down together and tried to solve the puzzles. A few times, I had to turn off the TV because she would get so excited."
A lifetime of practice paid off, as Brinkley-Bowers solved one puzzle after another, eventually racking up more prize money than her two opponents combined.
"A lot of times when I watch the show, I yell at the contestants because it doesn't look like they know what they're doing," she said. "But it's a lot harder than it looks on TV. There's a lot of pressure and you have to remember to smile, clap, pay attention to what everyone else is doing and watch the puzzle. It's hard."
Page 2 of 2 - Brinkley-Bowers said she plans to spend her prize money on home repairs and her family's first vacation together since 2004.
But the real prize, she said, was playing the game she's always loved next to Pat Sajack and Vanna White.
"When it was over I called my boyfriend, Blue, and told him about the $40,000 I missed in the bonus round, and he said 'That's okay, because you still got to do something you always wanted to do,'" she said. "And he was right. It was a once in a lifetime moment and I got to live it.