BRADENTON -- Standing on the "Wheel of Fortune" stage in Los Angeles this past October, Team Success teacher Laura Cassidy stared at the letters before her. It didn't look promising. Even though she had a wild card from previous rounds to reveal an extra letter, she only had four letters to guess two words.
Suddenly, the answer came to her: FIGHT SONG.
Host Pat Sajak couldn't believe it. Cassidy's guess secured her a total of $78,000, in addition to a trip to St. Lucia and other cash she had won in an earlier round.
Growing up, Cassidy watched "Wheel of Fortune" with her grandfather. She wanted to be Vanna White. So more than 20 years later, as Cassidy watched her student loans build up, there was only one logical game show to try her luck in.
"I'm sure he was watching," Cassidy said of her grandfather, who passed away when she was still a child. "He was probably the one that gave me the bonus answer."
Cassidy initially applied for the show in February after realizing that she needed help to pay her student loans.
"I needed some way to pay it off in a big chunk," Cassidy said.
A few months later she was invited to an audition in Baton Rouge, La. That day she and 60 others played a simulated game and took a written test. Eventually, 60 contestants were narrowed to 20.
"They wanted to see excitement," Cassidy said. "They wanted to see that you didn't call letters twice, that you had a loud, clear speaking voice."
Finalists were told that they'd receive a letter in the next two weeks if they were chosen for the show.
Cassidy received a letter 15 days later in the mail.
This past October, she flew to Los Angeles with her mother to tape a show Oct. 18. The show doesn't pay for contestants to travel, but Cassidy did learn that the show gives $1,000 to contestants that leave with nothing.
During the show, Cassidy won the first puzzle, before snagging the $10,000 roll and the St. Lucia trip. She'll take that trip with a girlfriend over spring break.
And she has another plan for her big earnings -- taking her Team Success second-graders to Chuck E Cheese's.
"Our children are less fortunate than others," Cassidy said of the "A" charter school where most students qualify for free and reduced lunch, "To them, this is a big deal."
Cassidy could only tell her closest friends and family about her winnings until her show aired on Dec. 11. She has some advice for those that might make it to the "Wheel of Fortune" stage.
"Just concentrate, breathe..." Cassidy said. "And stay calm."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.