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On July 8, 2021, Zaila Avant-garde outspelled 11 finalists to clinch the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee title. The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, is the first African American and only the second Black winner in the national competition's 93-year history. The first was Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica, who won in 1998 at the age of 12. Avant-garde is also Louisiana's first spelling bee champion!
"It felt like really good. It's like a kind of like a dream come true because I've been working toward that goal for like two years. And so to finally have it, it's like the best possible outcome because it couldn't have gone any better," Avant-garde told CBS This Morning.
The largely virtual competition included 209 regional winners from across the US, and four other countries — the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana, and Japan. It began with preliminaries in early June, followed by the quarterfinals and semifinals. The final round, televised live, was held in person at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, on July 8, 2021.
After two hours of intense battle, all but two of the 11 finalists — Avant-garde and Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas — had been eliminated. Thummala spelled her first two words with ease, but made a small error on "neroli oil." This gave Avant-garde a chance at the championship, which includes $50,000 in prize money. The young girl stepped up to the challenge by flawlessly spelling "murraya" — a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.
Avant-garde's victory is even more impressive given that, unlike most contestants, she has only been competing in spelling bees for two years. The eighth-grader attributes her success to her love of the roots of difficult words and hard work. She told the BBC, "I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so."
The spelling bee champion is also a basketball prodigy. The teenager, who aspires to attend Harvard University and play for the WNBA, is one of the top eighth-grade basketball prospects in the country. Avant-garde also holds three Guinness World Records for her incredible ball-handling skills. They include most basketballs juggled in one minute (four), the most basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously (six), and the most dribbles in 30 seconds with four basketballs.
Resources: NPR.com, Sripps.com, CNN.com. BBC.com