Villisca native realizes dream of competing on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
A Cedar Falls woman with ties to the Red Oak community recently got to live out a dream.
Nicole Bartz-Winther was one of the three contestants in the sixth episode of the 41st season of the nationally televised game show “Wheel of Fortune,” which aired Sept. 18. Bartz-Winther was born in Red Oak, and has family throughout Southwest Iowa and into Nebraska.
“My maiden name is Bartz, and there are some Bartzes in Red Oak. My dad, Dennis, has lived in Villisca and Nodaway all his life. I went to school at Enarson Elementary in Villisca until the second grade, and then my parents divorced and I moved to Kansas,” Bartz-Winther stated. “I would come back every summer and I played little league softball right there on the Red Oak field. Even into junior high, I played little league softball in the summer on the Villisca team. I thought it was really great they let me do that because I wasn’t technically enrolled there. I’m sure my dad just made it happen, and it was really great. I loved it.”
Blartz-Withner’s husband, Cody, is also a Villisca graduate and graduated as Valedictorian in 1993. Bartz-Winther is a private practice mental health therapist in Cedar Falls. She said prior to auditioning, she was a lifelong fan of “Wheel of Fortune.”
“I feel like the show has been in the background of my life since I can remember. It’s just always been there. It’s always on after the news, and sometimes you focus on it more than other times, and you’re solving puzzles and playing with family members. For the last few years, it’s been a nightly watch,” commented Bartz-Winther.
Bartz-Winther auditioned for the show the first time in 2021, after a notice popped up at the end of a show she and her husband, were watching, advertising for contestants to audition. Bartz-Winther said Cody was the one that encouraged her.
“He said I should try out. I don’t think I ever would have thought about trying out if not for that. It wouldn’t have been on my radar as a possibility for me. It’s nice when people who love you see qualities in you that you may not see in yourself,” Bartz-Winther stated.
While she never heard back after the first audition, Bartz-Winther said it was in January 2023 that she decided to try again.
“I submitted another video, went through the process, and then I received a notification that I was to meet with a producer. Following that, I had a taped audition with another possible contestant and a producer so they could see me in action, over Zoom.”
Bartz-Winther admitted it started rocky.
“I’m not great with technology, and if there is going to be something that messes up, I will absolutely be the person that does it. I was on the zoom, and I could see the people’s faces, and they had puzzles up. The guy I was going against kept getting all the puzzles. Finally, before the last puzzle, I realized that their faces were covering parts of the puzzle and I wasn’t seeing all of it. So I explained it to the producer, and I was able to move things around and got the last puzzle. In spite of the technical difficulties, I made it to the final round and got to be a contestant.”
The virtual audition took place in April of this year, and she was contacted in July announcing she was selected to go to Los Angeles, Calif, and tape a show on stage. Bartz-Winther said she wasn’t sure it was for real, at first.
“The message came in on a Friday, and I wasn’t sure until I got a follow-up email on a Sunday. Then we flew out on a Wednesday. They also knew when the episode was happening. They told me the episode would air in the fall, so they told me to dress accordingly,” explained Bartz-Winther.
While she had little time, Bartz-Winther said she did do some prep work prior to the taping.
“I kept watching it every night of course, and went through the whole process, and I also downloaded the “Wheel of Fortune” app, and it gets your brain used to calling the letter, seeing where it lands, and answering the puzzle. It boosted my confidence and ego quite a bit because I was solving puzzles left and right. They also give you a little tip sheet from things that they’ve learned for so many years of doing the show,” advised Bartz-Winther.
When she boarded the plane to fly out to do the taping, Bartz-Winther said she was beyond-the-moon excited.
“My brother-in-law, Cole Winther, lives in that area and came out and met us. We all were so excited. You can’t really tell a lot of people, so we had to be somewhat secretive, but I felt pure joy. We had to be very secretive about why we were in Los Angeles, and nobody really made the connection. I’ve been sitting on my hands and feet for a couple of months. I could not wait to tell people. I’ve got clever family and friends too, so after I told them, they’d try to set me up and see what kind of prizes I’d won, but I did not get tripped up,” said Bartz-Winther.
With the announcement that host Pat Sajak is retiring after this season, Bartz-Winther said getting to meet the pair in person, as well as the rest of the production staff, was incredible.
“The first thing they give you is the iconic name tag. I ran the gamut on all the emotions. It was so surreal. I had the time of my life. I’d relive the day over and over for the rest of my life. Vanna White came out before we did the show and came and chatted with us as a group, and Pat Sajak just has a natural rapport with people. He made us feel like he knew us our whole lives, and in a way, he has,” Bartz-Winther commented.
After getting the opportunity to spin it for real, Bartz-Winther stated it’s a bit heavy.
“It’s definitely heavier than you would think, and you have to reach as far as you can, because they want you to make a full spin. What’s also strange is that you have your little triangle in front of you, and intuitively, for some reason, I kept looking to the left, as I was in the center position. I was told that other contestants do that. So sometimes I’d see the other person’s arrow and see what their arrow had landed on rather than my own,” Bartz-Winther explained.
Also, Bartz-Winther said the first two spins didn’t go well, as she landed on bankrupt, but thankfully, she didn’t lose any prizes. Bartz-Winther said she had to mentally focus.
“I had that brief moment of ‘Oh no, all of this and I’m not going to get a single puzzle or any money and not be able to play.’ But I immediately told myself, this is a once in a lifetime deal, and you’re going to have a blast even if you walk away with nothing.”
Bartz-Winther finished in second place overall. She solved three puzzles, and walked away with a little more than $6,000. She was pleased with the results.
“It was a 30 minute show, and I made $6,000 bucks, and so I was happy, really happy. I feel things fell the way they fell. I was my authentic self, and I was really happy that I didn’t freeze or have a fear response to the cameras being on me, because I wasn’t sure how I’d react when the cameras were on me. They really make you feel like you’re part of the “Wheel of Fortune” family. Everyone, even the other contestants, is in your corner, and you just feel it. There’s really nothing I would change other than one time when I guessed a vowel. If I could do it over again, I think I would have spun, because it could have changed the whole puzzle for me,” Bartz-Winther advised.
Bartz-Winther was able to celebrate with a watch party that took place in Cedar Falls. The experience was very special.
“I loved having the support of friends and family, and I even got support from other community members who were there doing other things and they stopped me on my way out the door and told me they were proud of how I represented the town and represented Iowa. That warmed my heart so much. When I won, people were cheering, when I didn’t, they were sad for me. It was great,” Bartz-Winther stated.
The taping process was relatively easy, and Bartz-Winther said it only took around 40 minutes at most, with breaks as puzzles were changed.
Even though she’s competed, Bartz-Winther said she would happily participate again, and said there were options.
“It’s my understanding that after a certain amount of time, you can re-audition, and sometimes they bring players back. I’d love to do something again, even if it’s not the “Wheel.” I’d even consider auditioning for another game show.”
Bartz-Winther also encourages others to audition for the show if they get the chance.
“If you’re thinking about it, do it, and audition until you get on. Keep trying until you do. I submitted two tapes, and my first tape was more like an interview. I was professional and reserved. My second tape, I was my authentic, goofy self, and I think that’s what got me on, showing me who I am. The video is completely off the cuff, you only have about a minute, and you can say whatever you want and show off your personality,” Bartz-Winther said.
Lastly, Bartz-Winther heaped special praise on the contestants she faced during the show.
“They were amazing individuals. Everyone was so supportive of one another. I almost wish they showed the contestant audience during the show, because we were whooping it up for everybody. At a time when the world isn’t feeling like that sometimes, to have people from all over the country being there for each other was just wonderful,” commented Bartz-Winther.