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‘Throwback Tuesday’: For some, spelling bee runs in families

File-This May 30, 2012, file photo shows Vanya Shivashankar, of Olathe, Kan., smiling as she answers her question during the third round of the National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md. Participants and bee officials say the competition is fairer now that kids are tested on what words mean. But it's also taken some of the drama away from the semifinal rounds. Thirteen-year-old Vanya Shivashankar says she misses the simplicity of the old format, which she called "spelling till you drop." Now, there are two semifinal rounds, and test scores determine who makes it to the finals. Vanya was eliminated at that stage last year. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — At the annual National Spelling Bee barbecue, 15-year-old Anna Turner was one of many former spellers sporting the official T-shirt from the year she competed. But it wasn’t entirely by choice.

Anna, of Woodway, Texas, had a chance to make it back to the bee this year — but she was beaten out in the regional competition by her twin brother, Jacob. Last year, Anna topped her brother.

For one of the Turners to make the bee, one twin had to fall short. Their dad, Kyle Turner, joked that he considered putting them in different schools.

“We’ve always been very competitive, being twins,” Anna said. “I’m happy that he got a chance to come here also.”

The Turners stand out for being direct competitors, but it’s not unusual for spelling to run in families.

No sibling of a previous champion has ever won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but this year’s competition is stacked with contestants who’ve watched their older brothers or sisters. Thirty-six spellers have relatives who’ve competed, and three past winners have siblings in the competition — including the younger brothers of the 2013 and 2014 champions.

Even though the Turner twins were trying to beat each other, Jacob still learned from his sister. Last year, they went against each other for 37 rounds in the regional bee before she won.

“He’s taking the depth and breadth of that experience,” Kyle Turner said. “It’s all cumulative.”

Samuel Pereles of Waynesboro, Virginia, was in first grade when he watched his older brother, a sixth-grader, in a bee.

“He found he could spell almost every word,” his mother, Susan Pereles, said. “That’s when we kind of knew that this was something he could do.”

Samuel’s older brother and sister never made it to the national bee, but Samuel has three years running. He was in the finals last year, finishing 12th. His father, Thomas Pereles, said being exposed to competitive spelling at an early age made a difference.

“It takes time to do this,” Thomas said. “You need more than a year. There’s so much preparation that goes into this.”

The veteran families can be easy to spot — many of them sport vintage bee T-shirts. The bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, got in on the act this year, dusting off a shirt from the 1981 bee, which she won.

Tamya Matthews of Clinton, Maryland, took Tuesday’s preliminary spelling and vocabulary test while wearing her shirt from last year’s bee.

“Kind of like a throwback Tuesday,” Tamya, 13, said.

After Tuesday’s test, spellers will get their first crack at the national stage Wednesday. The semifinals and finals are Thursday.

At Monday’s barbecue, the winners of the unofficial T-shirt contest were the Willetts of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Both Rebecca, 20, and Caroline, 17, wore shirts from the years they competed, and so did parents Scott and Kim — from different years, since both girls made it twice. This year, youngest daughter Eliza, 13, is in the bee. If she makes it back next year, they’ll have to put a shirt on the family dog, Kim Willett joked.

“My oldest really wanted to get here. We started studying and figuring out how to get here,” said Kim Willett, who coaches the home-schooled girls. “I’m not a natural speller at all, but I’m extra smart when I have the spelling materials in front of me.”

Like Willett, Mirle Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, didn’t expect to become a parent-coach in spelling. But by any measure, he’s one of the most successful. His daughter Kavya won in 2009, and Vanya, 13, is participating for the fifth and final time.

Shivashankar gave up golf to spend more time coaching his daughters. After this bee, he hopes Vanya will go jogging or play tennis with him.

“There are some outdoor things I would like to do with her,” he said. “I still want to be bonded with her the same way.”

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