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Getting Ready to Spell F-U-N

Competitors age 50-plus from around the country are gathering this weekend for a battle of words.

Bill Long is a man with many titles. He's a consultant, attorney and ordained minister. The 58-year-old Connecticut native is also a professor, is the author of 14 books and has a Ph.D. in the history of religions. But there is one title that has eluded him since 2004: champion of the AARP National Spelling Bee.

"I guess I'm like a bridesmaid," says Long, of Salem, Ore. "I have been a finalist three times but never won."

Long is one of more than 50 people who have registered for the 15th annual contest in Cheyenne, Wyo., on Saturday, June 19, at the Little America Hotel and Resort. Open to anyone age 50 or older, the AARP National Spelling Bee pits spellers against each other in both a written test and an oral round. The winner gets $500, a trophy and bragging rights.

"We tend to get people from across the United States," says Joanne Bowlby, associate director of communications for AARP Wyoming. "They come from as far away as Alabama, Massachusetts and Florida. It's a very inspiring event."

And competitive. Long will be going up against newcomers, previous winners and others who have also been finalists—like Scott Firebaugh of Knoxville, Tenn. A high school physics and math teacher, Firebaugh is hopeful he'll walk away with it all.

"If I'm prepared, I've got a shot at it," says Firebaugh, 56, who has been studying for the bee for several months.

The competition first involves a written spelling test of 100 words, taken from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. The top 15 spellers from the written test advance to the oral competition. Oral spellers compete until they misspell three words. Sometimes there can be as many as 40 rounds, or even more.

Some registrants work on their spelling all year, says Bowlby. Others have complex systems using Internet study programs or MP3 recordings to learn correct pronunciations.

This year, the bee also features the workshop "Gray Matters: Training the Grown-up Brain," which will explore the mind-body connection, research on brain health and more. Organizers see a great benefit not only to the participants but to the public at large.

"It's really great to see folks challenging themselves," Bowlby says. "They're trying something new and using discipline to show a commitment to the bee. It breaks all the stereotypes of what aging is about."

Angela Bryant Starke is a writer in Knoxville, Tenn.

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