Longtime Puzzler To Certified Wordsmith, In One Fortunate Spin

Apr 13, 2014
Originally published on August 2, 2015 11:48 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Ever since Autumn Erhard was a kid, she spent her evenings on the couch solving word puzzles on Wheel of Fortune.

"I was always told growing up, 'You should try out,' " Erhard says. "For some reason, I just decided, 'I'm going to do it.' "

Erhard, a sales representative in Orange County, Calif., couldn't have timed it better. Last year, the show was celebrating its 30th anniversary — around the same time she turned 30. Erhard says that's why she was chosen to be a contestant.

Solving puzzles on the show, it turned out, was a lot different from playing on her couch. With the audience, lights and cameras, she says she was shaking and sweating.

"You just try to do your best and get in the zone and pretend like you're playing at home," she says.

Erhard made it all the way to the bonus round and took one final spin. The wheel stopped, host Pat Sajak took the sealed envelope, and Erhard looked at the board for her next word puzzle.

"My category was a 'thing,' " she says.

It was a two-word phrase, with 12 letters. She picked her letters, but only two T's, an R and one G appeared on the board.

The puzzle seemed impossible to solve, but Erhard had an idea.

"With the T and the G in the first word, I pretty much figured out it was 'tough.' And me being the workout junkie that I am, somehow 'workout' popped in my head," she says.

The timer started, and Erhard immediately called out her answer: "tough workout."

"All of a sudden, streamers come down and [Pat Sajak] opened the envelope," she says.

It was the $1 million prize.

"I was just completely shocked," Erhard says. "I couldn't even speak anymore, I could barely breathe. I thought I would cry but I think I had so many emotions going on that I was almost frozen."

She became the show's second million-dollar winner.

"Not in a million years would I have thought that I would've been on the show," she says. "Let alone win a million."

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Now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break, about triumphs big and small. Autumn Erhard, a sales rep in Orange County, California landed her big break when she was a contestant on her favorite game show Wheel of Fortune.

AUTUMN ERHARD: I grew up watching it with my dad ever since I could probably read. And we'd always have competitions, who could solve it faster. And I was always told growing up you should try out, you should try out. And it's like, ah, there's thousands upon thousands of people that try out. There's no way I'll ever get on. And for some reason I just decided I'm going to do it. And I was 30 years old and it turns out that they're having the 30th anniversary and they were looking for people that had something to do that involved being 30. And I just got lucky.


ERHARD: Once I got on stage and they were getting ready to film me, I was just shaking and sweating. And I was one person over from the host, Pat Sajak. It's completely different when you're in the studio with the audience and lights and cameras in your face. But you just try to do your best and get in the zone and kind of pretend like you're playing at home.


ERHARD: The bonus round comes and I introduce my parents on the stage and my fiance. They were all there to watch.


ERHARD: I spin the wheel...


ERHARD: ...then my category goes up and it was.


ERHARD: They give you the letters R, S, T, L, N, E and only the Ts come up and one R. so I'm like, oh man. So I guess my letters, which I believe were C, D, M and A. Since I had that wild card I ended up guessing a G. And thank goodness for that wild card because C, D, M and A were not in that puzzle. The only letter I got was a G.


ERHARD: And I was like, just one?


ERHARD: With the T and the G in the first word I pretty much figured out that it was tough. And me being a workout junky that I am, somehow workout popped in my head. And so the timer started.


ERHARD: And then all of a sudden streamers come down and he opened the envelope and it said $1 million.


ERHARD: I was just completely shocked.


ERHARD: I couldn't even describe in words, I couldn't even speak. I could barely breathe. You know, I thought I would cry or something like that but I think I had so many emotions going on that I was like almost frozen. My family had run out and we were all hugging. My dad didn't even realize I had won a million dollars.


ERHARD: And I'm still shocked. It's been almost a year since it aired and I'm still, like, did this really happen? Not in a million years would I have thought that I would've been on the show, let alone win a million.


ERHARD: This was my big break.

VIGELAND: That was Autumn Erhard, the second contestant on Wheel of Fortune to ever win a million dollars. She's saving it for her upcoming wedding and, yes, the engagement came before the million dollars. We want to hear your stories. Send us an email at MyBigBreak@npr.org.


VIGELAND: Coming up, a look at life in today's Cuba.

JULIA COOKE: Contemporary Cuba is very cognizant of how detached politics is from life. It's second nature to them to say, your government stinks but come on in and have a run with me.

VIGELAND: Julia Cooke talks about five years living off the grid in post-Fidel Cuba in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.