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Zaila Avant-garde Makes History As 1st African American to Win Scripps National Spelling Bee


Murraya. That was the word that 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde spelled correctly earlier this month before she was crowned the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. This win became a monumental moment in history, making her the first African American to win the competition since the inaugural event in 1925.

What Happened at the 2021 Spelling Bee?

Zaila has been preparing for the spelling bee for two years now after failing to qualify for the 2019 competition. To train for the event, she told the BBC that she studied 13,000 words per day for around seven hours, but not much longer so as to not interfere with school or her second passion, basketball. The Scripps National Spelling Bee returned in 2021 after the event was canceled last year due to the pandemic for the first time since World War II. From a group of 209 contestants, Zaila was one of the 11 finalists whose ages ranged from 9 to 15. 

Preliminaries for the competition began virtually in June, which were then followed by the quarterfinals and semifinals. Finally, on Thursday, July 8, the last round of the competition was held in person at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Hailing from Louisiana, Zaila conquered the word “Murraya,” which–fun fact!– is a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals according to Merriam-Webster. This year, no tie-breakers were needed for the competition, as Zaila was able to outspell her competition on that night, winning the $50,000 prize.

Previously, the only Black winner before Zaila was Jody-Anne Maxwell, who represented Jamaica in 1998.

After clinching her title, Zaila also managed to share a cute story about what–or rather, who–helped her with her win when it came to working out the word in her head. 

“I’d like to say thank you to Bill Murray because the reason I knew that word ‘murraya’ was because of the movie Lost in Translation which when I was a little kid I used to listen to the soundtrack and so that’s how that word was stuck in my head because it was spelled like Bill Murray’s name,” she explained, NPR reported.

It’s no surprise that this moment, which was not only historic for the nation but also a personal accomplishment by Zaila, invoked a feeling of pride from the 14-year-old.

“It made me feel really proud,” she said of her win. “I’m really hoping lots of little brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it’s really a fun thing to do and it’s a great way to kind of connect yourself with education, which is super important.”

Who is Zaila Avant-garde?

It’s nearly impossible to put Zaila into a box. She’s a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Louisiana who doubles as a prodigy in basketball and education. Before her interest in spelling bees sparked though, Zaila wasn’t always interested in education. In fact, they became a “gate-opener to being interested in education” according to the New York Times.

Now that she has this title under her belt, Zaila is really just looking forward to being able to inspire other young girls like her to do and achieve amazing things in their life.

“I want to inspire everybody, especially African-Americans girls,” Zaila told PEOPLE after she won the spelling bee.

Zaila’s skills do not stop at her intellectual talents. She is also an avid basketball player in her free time, holding three separate Guinness World Records due to her skills. In November 2019, she earned the title of most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs with 307 bounces. The next November, she broke the record for the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs with 255 juggles. Most recently at the end of January, she equaled the record for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously by one person with six balls, originally achieved by Joseph Odhiambo in August 2000.

What’s Next for Zaila?

Zaila defies the “jack of all trades” cliche. Her wide range of skills has set her up for a future of success, but at age 14, she certainly has plenty of time to decide who and what she wants to be down the line. Since her big win, she revealed that ideally, she’d love to attend the prestigious Harvard University and play basketball there before starting her career at NASA, or even as a coach in the NBA.

“I like working with NASA and doing gene editing,” she told interviewers as well. “I have a lot of different things I’m interested in.”

The possibilities are endless for this young budding superstar! But she assures people that she will have no trouble finding ways to keep herself busy.

“I’ll find something else to do,” she told CNN. “Trust me.”

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