Zaila Avant-garde becomes first African American champion at Scripps National Spelling Bee

·3-min read

Zaila Avant-garde is the new national spelling bee champion, and it's not the first time she has been on top of the world at something.

The 14-year-old from New Orleans was named the winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, spelling words such as "querimonious," "ancistroid," "solidungulate." It was "Murraya," a genus of flowering citrus plants in Asia, that won Avant-garde the competition after runner-up Chaitra Thummala misspelled "neroli oil" in the 17th round.

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Avant-garde becomes the first African American winner in the 93-year history of the storied competition, and the second Black champion overall. Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica won the event in 1998, still the only winner from outside the United States.

It was a historic, impressive win for the eighth-grader, and yet, spelling hasn't been the focus of her life. 

Zaila Avant-garde can hoop

As the Associated Press documented heading into the event, Avant-garde didn't start spelling competitively until she was 12. Instead, the focus has been on basketball.

From the AP:

“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. 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.”

So far, that basketball career has been going pretty well. She already has three Guinness World Records, including for most bounce juggles in one minute. 

Just look at this:

Avant-garde has already parlayed that part of her athletic career into a featured spot in a commercial with Stephen Curry, but she has much bigger plans than that for her future. Just look at this incredible sentence from the AP's article:

She hopes to attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and possibly coach one day in the NBA, if she doesn’t go to work for NASA.

Oh, and she also read 1,000 chapter books by the time she turned 13 and is heavily interested in archaeology, in case she needed help for her "Most interesting 14-year-old in the world" application. 

Even a spelling bee isn't safe from a replay review

Before the confetti dropped for Avant-garde, the spelling bee saw one of its more controversial moments when finalist Roy Seligman was asked to spell "ambystoma."

Seligman appeared to correctly spell the word, but then the competition's stewards decided to take a look at the tape and see if he had used "i" instead of "y" for the fourth letter of the word. Replay review determined Seligman had, leading to this surreal moment:

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The situation was awkward enough that the Spelling Bee addressed it on Twitter, praising Seligman, the first finalist from the Bahamas.

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