Zaila Avant-garde has captured hearts across the country after making history by becoming the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, July 8. Avant-garde was declared the Scripps’ 2021 champion after correctly spelling the word “murraya” – which is defined as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.”
Avant-garde twirled with joy after her victory and has been lighting up TV screens and social media feeds ever since. She said it “felt really good” to be the first Black American to win in the competition’s 96-year history and wants to inspire other Black children to follow in her footsteps.
“I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African-American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee because it’s kind of sad how there’s a great lack of those people,” Avant-garde told Good Morning America. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well at Spelling Bees, and that’s a bit sad because it’s like a really good thing and kind of is a gate-opener to being interested in education.”
Avant-garde, who is home-schooled, said she studied more than 13,000 words for seven hours each day for two years to prepare for the competition. She used a program called Spell Pundit and worked with teachers and tutors, including Scripps 2015 runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.
Avant-garde’s family used prize money from the winnings she received at a different spelling bee last year to help fund the study sessions. She still believes she studied “a bit less than what some spellers do” and didn’t want to “go way too overboard,” The Associated Press reported.
She also noted she understood many other Black students might not be fortunate enough to have the resources she does. “Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” Zaila told AP. “With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates.”
When TV personality George Stephanopoulos asked what she planned to do to celebrate her win, Avant-garde replied, “I’m going to have lots of fun. That’s about the broadest description I can give you.”
This isn’t the first time the 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, has broken records. Her historic spelling bee win is just one in a litany of accomplishments because spelling is her self-professed side-hustle.
“Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”
Before claiming her throne as ‘the baddest speller in the land,’ Avant-garde already held three Guinness World Records because of her phenomenal basketball skills. After deciding to go for the record for her 13th birthday, Avant-garde claimed Guinness records for: the most bounce juggles in one minute with three basketballs, the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously by one person using multiple (six) basketballs at once, and the most dribbles in 30 seconds with four basketballs.
The multi-talented prodigy has been playing basketball since she was 5 and was even featured in a commercial with NBA star Steph Curry.
In addition to making history and receiving the first-place trophy, Avant-garde has earned $52,500 in cash and prizes from Scripps and its partner Merriam-Webster. Countless people from all walks of life are singing her praises.
“Zaila demonstrated incredible mastery of the English language with poise and perseverance. The excellence of all of our competitors, their hard work and commitment to learning, and their distinct stories, capture hearts and minds across the globe,” E.W. Scripps Company President and CEO Adam Symson said.
“Talk about #blackgirlmagic! Congratulations to Zaila Avant-Garde, a 14-year-old from Harvey La., for winning the Scripps National #SpellingBee,” New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell tweeted. “She’s the First African American winner and the First champion from Louisiana! We’re all so proud of you!!”
Current and former U.S. First Ladies Jill Biden and Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey sent congratulations. “Congratulations Zaila!!!” Biden wrote. “Yes, Zaila! We are so, so proud of you!” Obama added. “Brava, brava @Basketballasart! You make us all P-R-O-U-D!” Winfrey chimed in.
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“One day I’ll stop tweeting about Zaila Avant-garde…. but not today,” film and TV producer Franklin Leonard tweeted among a flurry of tweets he’s been sending out since he first learned she was competing. “I will protect this child with my life,” he wrote in another.
“Congratulations I know your parents are proud and so am I. You represented Black people around the world with grace. Thank you,” Twitter user @PeacolaUmana1 wrote.
As for her future goals, Zaila Avant-garde is considering several things including playing in the WNBA or overseas, being some form of a scientist, being a basketball coach or something else that may catch her fancy
In the meantime, she just wants to see Mickey Mouse and keep shoring up her skills in the paint. Whatever she chooses, her fans have no doubt she will excel at it all.
“OMG. She is amazing! I love everything about this little girl. The world belongs to her because anything is possible in her universe,” @shanikharris tweeted.