Justin Bolsen ’26 was hitting a “pretty heavy leg day” in the Nelson Fitness Center last October when he got an email from the executive producer of “Jeopardy!”
Bolsen, who reached the semifinals of the quiz show’s teen tournament in 2019 at age 14, immediately knew: “This was my redemption arc.”
“I read through the email on my phone and I (was) hyperventilating,” Bolsen said. “This has been a huge dream of mine, something that has kept me awake at night. Like, ‘What if I got to go back? What would happen?’ ”
In the email, Bolsen found out he would compete with the other contestants from the high school tournament the season he competed — as well as contestants from a separate tournament the same season, for a total of 27 competitors.
“They brought us back and doubled the numbers and made it crazy,” he added. “It’s literally like the Hunger Games.”
Bolsen will appear on Thursday’s episode of “Jeopardy!” in this season’s high school reunion tournament, which will air locally at 7:30 p.m. on WPRI 12 and stream on YouTube TV and Paramount+.
Bolsen’s “Jeopardy!” debut took place in 2019 after his grandmother texted him suggesting he audition for the show.
“I’d been in quiz bowl all throughout middle school and was a pretty big trivia fan at the time,” he said. Through middle school, Bolsen woke up for quiz bowl practice at 6 a.m. five mornings a week, practicing for hours.
For Thursday’s episode — for which filming took place at the end of January — Bolsen described running back and forth between the “Jeopardy!” stage and the “Wheel of Fortune” stage during downtime.
The whole process was a “blur,” he said.
“I got up on the podium and my hands (were) starting to sweat a little bit,” he said. “My hands (were) really shaky and I was so nervous. I was trying to make jokes with the other contestants to loosen myself up a little bit.”
But Bolsen said that once the game began, everything became “automatic.”
“I’ve been trained in trivia for basically my whole life — it’s just a skill that (I) can tap into,” he explained. “The trivia version of me is an entirely different person.”
Gus LaFave ’26, one of Bolsen’s close friends, called Bolsen “a force of nature.”
LaFave recalled Bolsen’s preparation process, as he went from “doing his classwork, to the gym, straight to studying obscure Middle Ages royalty and still making our dinner plans early,” he told The Herald.
Bolsen “would tell us to talk about any obscure interests we might have, and (he would) sit back and listen, absorbing information with a remarkable attention to detail and nuance,” LaFave added. “If you were to tell me that someone I knew was going to be on ‘Jeopardy!’, it would have to be Justin Bolsen.”
Benjamin Ringel ’26, another one of Bolsen’s friends on campus, said he “swears (Bolsen) knows everything about everything.”
“When I got into Brown, people told me I’d be going to a place full of some of the smartest people I’d ever meet. When I think about that, I think about Justin,” Ringel said. “Over winter break, I let him borrow my Quizlet Plus account to study for ‘Jeopardy!’, and every day I got an email notifying me about how much time he’d spent reviewing flashcards.”
“I have a lot of respect for his mentality about the whole thing,” he added. “He’s the opposite of the ‘I’m not here to make friends’ guy. The way he described the other contestants, now his buddies, was really glowing.”
Teagan O’Sullivan, Bolsen’s fellow “Jeopardy!” competitor and a first-year student at American University, met Bolsen at the 2019 teen tournament and has considered him a “good friend since that time.”
O’Sullivan explained that while she and Bolsen met at the tournament, they had never competed against each other until this year’s reunion tournament.
“Playing against each other this time was fun, yet bittersweet,” O’Sullivan wrote in a message to The Herald. “You never want to have to play against people you’re close with, but … being able to compete against him made it a bit more fun and relaxed. Nothing felt competitive or cutthroat.”
O’Sullivan added that Bolsen’s “charismatic yet laid-back personality” makes him “both a great TV contestant and person to be around.”
According to O’Sullivan, the group atmosphere was “incredibly pleasant.”
“We have all grown so much since our first ‘Jeopardy!’ appearances, but even with this passage of time and the amount of change we have all undergone, we have maintained a sense of camaraderie that was ultra-present as we taped,” she wrote.
As for Bolsen, building relationships motivates him in his continued pursuits of trivia and knowledge.
“I see trivia as a way to connect with people,” Bolsen told The Herald. “It helps me relate to people in general. Like, if one of my friends asks if I’ve read a particular book that they’re into, I can be like ‘oh my god, yeah I had to read it while studying for quiz bowl.’ I can talk to people about so many things.”
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.