Zaila Avant-garde just became the first Black American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the competition’s history. The only previous Black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell in 1998, who comes from Jamaica. They both follow MacNolia Cox’s footsteps, the first Black finalist at the bee in 1936. Due to segregation, she wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers.
Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from New Orleans, won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday night by correctly spelling the word "murraya.” Zaila becomes the first African American national champion in the spelling bee’s history.pic.twitter.com/QYbO9QPHqF
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) July 9, 2021
Avant-garde, whose last name is in homage to John Coltrane, is a gifted basketball player who told reporters she sees spelling as a side hobby – her main focus is joining the WNBA.
The 14-year-old from Harvey, La. has already set three Guinness World Records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously – six basketballs for 30 seconds; the most basketball bounces – 307 bounces in 30 seconds; the most bounce juggles in one minute – 255 using four basketballs. To add to her list of firsts, she’s the only winner of the spelling bee from Louisiana.
Her winning word was murraya – a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals. It caused a slight frown when presenter Dr. Jacques A. Bailly gave her the word, but she said the word didn’t phase her.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila told the Associated Press.
She told reporters that her strategy is finding out the roots that weren’t part of the word and eliminated them first.
The only word that seemed to give her pause was nepeta – a genus of mints. When she aced it, she leaped higher than when she took the trophy.
“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them, and I can’t get them right,” she told reporters. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are, and I can’t get you.”
She showed an aptitude for spelling at 10. Her father, Jawara Spacetime, believed her math skills would mske her a good speller; he spontaneously quizzed her while watching finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN. He asked her how to spell the winning word, marocain, and Zaila spelled it perfectly. Thinking it was a fluke, he began asking her to spell the winning words going back to 1999. She got almost all of them right and even remembered where she saw them.
“He was a bit surprised by that,” Zaila told reporters before the start of the bee.
The child prodigy who practices for up to seven hours a day told reporters she did not start spelling competitively until two years ago when she asked her parents if she could compete in the regional spelling bee. In 2019 she made it to the third round of the national tournament when she missed the word vagaries – means random actions or notions.
Following that competition, she began working with Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student, the 2015 Scripps runner-up, and private coach.
“Usually, to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Shafer-Ray told reporters. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?'”
Shafer-Ray said he realized Avant-garde was different from other students.
“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” he said. “She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”
This year’s competition was the first since the pandemic began and forced the cancellation of the Scripps bee in 2020, the first time since World War II. In place of her dream competition, Zaila signed up for a national online contest held by Hexco Academic, a Texas-based organization that coaches spellers, and Kaplan Test Prep.
She won, beating out 88 other students, and received the top prize of $10,000. Her winning word was “Qashqai,” a migratory Turkic-speaking people of the Zagros mountains east of the Bakhtiari.
“I really like that word,” Zaila said.
Most of the Scripps bee was held virtually, and only 11 finalists got to compete in person at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida that also hosted the NBA playoff bubble last year. The in-person competition only allowed spellers’ immediate family, Scripps staff, selected media — and first lady Jill Biden, in attendance.
The format of the bee changed following the 2019 competition, which had an eight-way tie. This year, five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first onstage round. They also added multiple-choice vocabulary questions, which all six remaining spellers got right.
Zaila took home this year’s trophy in less than two hours, beating 12-year-old Chaitra Thummala of Frisco, Texas.
“Zaila deserved it. She’s always been better than me,” Chaitra told ESPN.
She will take home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”
— Zaila Avant-garde (@ZailaAvantgarde) April 17, 2021