BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2008, 11:10 GMT
'The proudest moment of my life'
By Freya McClements
BBC News

Freya McClements
Lifting the University Challenge trophy
A student from Belfast, Paul McKay, led his team in the final of the BBC quiz, University Challenge.

To my great disappointment, they were defeated on Monday night.

They would have been deserving winners, but were narrowly beaten by a very strong Oxford team.

Watching all the excitement surrounding the run-up to the final, I knew exactly how he felt.

Four years ago, it was my team, from

Magdalen College, Oxford, who were about to go into battle for the University Challenge title.

Except, of course, my teammates and I were part of an extremely select group of people who knew the outcome.

In fact, we knew we'd won six months earlier. The quarters, semis and the final are all filmed over the course of one weekend in Granada studios in Manchester - the quarter-finals on Saturday, and the semis and the final on Sunday.

It's a tough schedule, but we were lucky enough to play the first semi-final, which gave us valuable time to relax between matches while our opponents were still slogging it out on the buzzers.

I sought refuge from the pressure of the studio atmosphere in a nearby science museum, and one of my strongest memories is discussing with my best friend how we hadn't a chance of winning, so we should just go out and enjoy it.

It helped me relax - and I don't think we would have won otherwise.

It's impossible not to be nervous, but you can't let those nerves take over, and as we waited for the final to start it was important to keep myself - and the rest of the team - calm.

The final

Then the match began, and suddenly we were in the lead.

We got the first two starters and maximised our bonuses while our opponents, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, dropped five points, so that after only a few minutes the score stood at 50 to -5.

I'll always be glad of that module on medieval British history I'd studied for my finals - it got us 15 valuable points on William the Conqueror and his archbishops.

But Gonville and Caius were hot on our heels, and although they caught us up - 'level-pegging', as Paxman puts it - they never overtook us.

With only a few minutes to go, we were 60 points in front, and for the first time I began to contemplate victory.

If we could just hold on... but Cambridge were coming back strong. After what seemed like an eternity, the gong went.

We'd won - by 190 points to 160. I sat back in my seat, overwhelmed by it all.

For the first time I noticed the audience, clapping and cheering. We'd won, we'd actually won.


It had long been an ambition of mine to not just appear on University Challenge, but to win it.

While a pupil at Dalriada School in Ballymoney, my school team took - among others - two Northern Ireland titles.

We would always discuss that week's University Challenge match, and the many regulars from the quiz circuit who would pop up on the programme.

It's no exaggeration to say that recieving the trophy was one of the proudest moments of my life. I held it above my head and thought, 'I've done it'.

The hard part was keeping the result quiet. We had to go back to everyday life like nothing had happened, but I got more than my 15 minutes of fame before the final was shown.

There was one sad moment too - the death of another former schools quizzer, the Tyrone GAA captain Cormac McAnallen.

Our quarter-final match - shown the night he died - was the last thing he ever watched, and I know he would have been watching with interest to see how I got on.

The morning of the final, my phone just didn't stop ringing - the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News... they all wanted to talk to me, and, most importantly, wanted to know what Jeremy Paxman was really like.

For the record, my team got on well with him. He was never sharp or snappy with us, and in the green room after a match we chatted about his time as a reporter in Belfast.

This year, I'm in their shoes. As a BBC reporter, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul McKay, and I discovered that we once played against other in a schools quiz tournament.

Though Monday night's final may not have had the outcome Paul or I would have wished for, he and his team have every reason to feel equally proud of themselves - and I hope they enjoy their own moment in the sun.

Paul answers University Challenge
03 Mar 08 |  Northern Ireland
Scholar tops university quiz
13 Apr 04 |  Northern Ireland

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific