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Winner’s blog: Alex Manea goes from app champ to TV triumph with Episode 5 win

It all started with an app.

It was the fall of 2014 and I was looking for new games to play, when the Canada’s Smartest Person app caught my eye. I started playing along and realized that I was pretty good at the challenges (though this darn “Braden Lauer” fellow kept beating me). That’s when I decided I didn’t just want to be on the leaderboard — I wanted to be at the top. So I started practicing every day — watching each episode over and over and doing all of the bonus challenges.

After a few weeks, the dedication paid off and I made it to the top of the leaderboard. Seeing my name and picture on live TV was a huge thrill, and it was even more amazing when it happened again the next week. That’s when the show reached out and asked about doing a blog feature, and I was happy to take part.

But there was still something bugging me: I knew I could get the job done in the comfort of my living room, but how would I do on the actual show? Could I do the physical challenges? Would I give a coherent speech? And most of all, could I handle the pressure? There was only one way to find out.

From cellphone to small screen

I applied for Season 2 and was ecstatic when the casting team got in touch. The next few months were a grueling series of intelligence tests, interviews, questions and personality profiles. It kind of felt like applying to Harvard, but I’m pretty sure Harvard is easier to get into. The casting team had to choose only 28 contestants from thousands of brilliant applicants, and I don’t envy their job one bit.

When I met the other contestants, I knew I had my work cut out for me. Jennifer was very strong in my weaker intelligences, Jakob reminded me a lot of myself (more on that later), and Barry probably had more life experience than the rest of us combined. I was glad to get Music Match out of the way first because I knew it was one of my weaker areas. The three-way tie for second place reminded me how important speed was, and I made a mental note to keep track of how quickly I answered questions in other challenges.

When I found out the visual challenge involved painting, I knew I was in for a long night. As anyone who knows me will tell you, visual arts are not my strength. In fact, that was literally the first time I had picked up a paintbrush in over 15 years. My goals were simple: stay true to myself and don’t look like a fool on national television. Despite finishing in last place, this is actually the single challenge where I’m proudest of my performance. My painting may never hang in the National Gallery of Canada, but it’s already hanging somewhere infinitely more important: my parents’ living room.

I knew I had to do well in the logical challenge to have a chance of making it to The Gauntlet. What I didn’t know was that I was up against an 18-year-old whiz kid who did mental math for fun. As soon as we started, I noticed how quickly Jakob was keying in his answers (and remember, speed is the tie-breaker). The only person I had ever seen that quick at mental math was… me, when I was 18. And that’s when I realized I was up against my 18-year-old self. I tried not to panic; there was no way I could catch Jakob on time, so I slowed down and made sure I got the rest of the answers right. I felt really bad for Jakob when he missed — he knew the answer but second-guessed himself. I was lucky enough to win the challenge, but I knew I had to step up my game.

Getting past the pressure

Teeter Tower was by far the toughest challenge. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway: try patting your head with your left hand while rubbing your belly with your right hand (do it!). Now instead of rubbing your belly, imagine building a tall, thin tower of blocks with an unstable base to hit a narrow laser beam, with barely enough blocks to get up there. All of the blocks have to align perfectly, and a single slip or twitch can send the whole thing crashing down. And instead of patting your head, imagine holding a rope attached to a weight that gets heavier over time. The rope holds the table that you’re building on upright, and extending your arm too far or retracting it too much tilts the table and sends your whole tower crashing down. Now throw in a screaming audience behind you, competitors and noise all around you, and the knowledge that people across the country are watching your every move. No pressure.

Heading into the Spin-A-Speech challenge, I knew I had to finish first or second to guarantee a spot in The Gauntlet. I’ve done professional speeches and keynotes in front of large audiences, but shockingly none have involved spinning a wheel to choose the topic and having a list of words to use. As soon as Jessi said, “Go,” I went into an absolute zone like nothing I’ve ever experienced. For 45 seconds, all that existed in the universe was the topic, the list of words and the judge. The craziest part: I don’t remember what I actually said. Seriously. I found out afterwards while watching the episode on TV! As soon as the timer expired, I snapped out of the trance and immediately scanned the audience, the judge and Jessi for their reactions. They all said the same thing: “You did it!”

Throwing down the Gauntlet

Going into The Gauntlet, I knew it was going to be very close. Jakob was younger, faster and sharper, and I just hoped that my experience and coffee focus could carry me through. Balancing bricks across the seesaw was definitely the toughest part, but I took my time and tried to concentrate. People expected me to have trouble carrying five bricks under a bar; being 6’6”, I generally prefer to go over or through obstacles. But then again, I’ve also spent my adult life ducking under horizontal barriers just above my eye level (or, as they’re commonly known, doorways).

Climbing to the top of the stage and hitting the button to win was absolutely surreal, and watching my whole family jump up in unison is something I’ll never forget. I slowly closed my eyes and opened them again to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The feeling of relief was unbelievable, knowing that it was all over and that I could finally relax.

Going into the finale, I’ve got my work cut out for me yet again. This time, I’m up against six of the best and brightest competitors from across the country. No matter what happens, I’ll never forget this once-in-a-lifetime experience and all of the fantastic people involved with the show, all of whom work their tails off to entertain us on Sunday nights. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but I can also tell you for a fact that the show, the challenges and the competitors are 100 per cent legitimate. And most of all, I can tell you that whoever wins the finale will, without a shadow of a doubt, deserve to be called Canada’s Smartest Person.

 

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