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14-Yr-Old Zaila Avant-garde Makes History As First African American To Win National Spelling Bee

The 14-year-old's winning word was "Murraya." Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, was the runner-up.

14-Yr-Old Zaila Avant-garde Makes History As First African American To Win National Spelling Bee
Image Source: Twitter/Scripps National Spelling Bee

Zaila Avant-garde has made history as the first African American contestant to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in its nearly century-long existence. The 14-year-old's winning word was "Murraya," a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees. She beamed when she realized she had won knowing full well how Black kids around the country would be watching her. "I want to inspire everybody, especially African-American girls," she told PEOPLE, hoping they would follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them. She had previously competed in the bee only once in 2019. At the time, she had finished 370th.



Not only is Zaila proficient in spelling, but the eighth-grader from Harvey, Louisiana, is also a basketball prodigy. In addition to the title of the national spelling champ that she just earned, she also holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball talents. NPR reported that Zaila holds the records for the most bounce juggles in 1 minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and ties the record for most basketballs (six) dribbled at once by one person. The multi-faceted teen wants to use her athletic prowess to go to Harvard University "as a basketball player and student."



"I like working with NASA and doing gene editing. I have a lot of different things I'm interested in," Zaila added about her wide range of passions. She had taken up spelling as a hobby that she dedicated nearly seven hours of practice to every day. “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 told ABC News. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.” Unlike many of her counterparts, who start prepping for Spelling Bee as early as kindergarten, Zaila started only a few years ago.



Her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the bee on TV and realized that his daughter's affinity for doing complicated math in her head could translate well to spelling. As expected she progressed quickly. “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,” Cole Shafer-Ray, the 2015 Scripps runner-up, who is now a 20-year-old Yale student and Zaila's coach, said. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’” The competition was canceled last year due to the pandemic and this year Zaila came back after her 2019 defeat with a bang to take the trophy home.



“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said confidently. She even remembered MacNolia Cox, who was the first Black finalist at the competition in 1936. She wasn't even allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers and was also allegedly prevented from winning the contest at the time. The only previous Black champion at the contest was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. According to The Guardian, Zaila has also broken a streak of at least one champion or co-champion being of South Asian descent, which had been going on since 2008.



Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, was the runner-up. Chaitra was also coached by Shafer-Ray. First lady Jill Biden was also present at the competition to witness the drama. The finals took place in person at the Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and the audience was limited to spellers' immediate families, Scripps staff, and selected media.


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