Amy Schneider is opening up about the importance of authenticity.
Before she became Jeopardy!'s most-winning woman and the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, the Oakland-based former engineering manager, one of PEOPLE's Women Changing the World in 2022, spent more than a decade auditioning to be a contestant.
"I do think part of the reason I finally did get selected was that I had transitioned, and I was living my real identity," Schneider, 42, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "Looking back, I realized that I was hiding so much of myself. I was a very closed-off person before that."
Still, when Schneider was finally selected, she made a last-minute decision. "I had a plan to feminize my voice more," she recalls. "But I thought, 'If I focus on being myself, I know I'll feel better, regardless of the reaction.' "
Almost immediately after her first episode aired, messages from the LGBTQ+ community began pouring in. "Somebody said their grandfather was using the right pronouns for a trans person for the first time ever," she says. "That made me realize I was making people's lives better."
Her history-making 40-game streak ended on Jan. 26, with nearly $1.4 million in prize money, which is the fourth-highest in competition history. For Schneider, who recently got engaged to girlfriend Genevieve on Feb. 24, the experience was every bit as valuable.
"I'm so glad I didn't present an idealized version of myself. If I had, it would've set a standard like, Oh, well, yeah, everybody likes Amy because she's ... whatever," she says. "It feels really good to say, 'No, that was just me.' "
Schneider will return for Jeopardy!'s Tournament of Champions this fall.