CHEYENNE, Wyo. — An old case of sibling rivalry could spell trouble at this year's AARP National Spelling Bee, as four siblings who were raised with more books than toys in their home gather for what they say will be more than a family reunion.
Half a century after the three sisters and their brother bragged about their grades by posting them on the refrigerator, they're about to find out who among them is the best speller.
"Our parents actually were the ones who set the bar high. They were both teachers. Their expectations were that we would do as well as possible, period," said 67-year-old Joan Risley, of Scottsdale, Ariz., oldest of the four.
Her sister, Prudence Hopkins, 57, of Spotsylvania, Va., remembers things a bit differently: It was Joan who set the bar so high by earning her master's degree at 20.
"My sister Joan being the oldest and the most responsible and blah, blah, blah. You know, she was valedictorian, and this and that," said Hopkins, a hospital chaplain. "Down the line, the expectation was we'd all achieve."
The AARP bee is open to anyone age 50 and older, and it's very competitive. The winner typically puts in many hours of preparation studying the dictionary.
More than 50 competitors from 24 states have signed up for the 16th annual senior bee at the Little America resort in Cheyenne.
Joining Risley and Hopkins in Cheyenne will be their brother, Roger Risley, 62, of Port Townsend, Wash.; and sister, Chris Wagner, 60, of Sacramento, Calif.
Two pairs of sisters from Colorado also have signed up, said Wyoming AARP spokeswoman Joanne Mai.
"We've even had a divorced couple compete before. But this is the first time we've had essentially a family reunion at the bee," Mai said. "I'm not sure what sparked this family affair phenomenon, but we're glad to have it."
There's extended family, too: A second cousin of the Risleys, 2009 bee winner Michael Petrina Jr., of Arlington, Va., has signed up to compete again. Petrina beat Joan Risley to win a regional New York state spelling bee back when they were in middle school, and she hasn't forgotten it.
Last year's winning word at the AARP bee was "uakari" (wah-KAR'-ee), a species of monkey. LaGrange, Ga., psychologist Tony Johnson, 58, nailed the word to win $5,000.
The bee will begin with a written round of 100 words. The top 15 from the written test advance to the oral round. Competitors in the oral round may misspell a word once but not twice: It's two strikes and you're out at the AARP bee.
There have been no repeat champions. Petrina, a retired lobbyist who finished second in 2011 and 2008 and third in 2007, has come closer to a repeat than anybody.
"We have some people who come who are extremely competitive. Then we have some people who come just for fun," Mai said.
This will be the first meeting of all four Risley children since their father's funeral in 2003. Meeting up at the bee was Hopkins' idea.
"It's really kind of a lark," Joan Risley said. "My youngest sister said we haven't gotten together since the last family funeral."
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