14-Year-Old Zaila Avant-garde Wins National Spelling Bee; First-Ever African American Winner in Event History

With her successful spelling of the word “murraya,” a type of tropical Asiatic and Australian tree, Zaila Avant-garde from Harvey, Louisana won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming the event’s first-ever African American winner and the second Black winner in the competition’s 96-year history, after Jamaica’s Jody-Anne Maxwell won in 1998.

Ben Nuckols of the Associated Press has reported Avant-garde considers spelling “a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day” leading up to competition on July 8.

“She is [also] a basketball prodigy who hopes to play someday in the WNBA and holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously,” Nuckols reported.

According to Nuckols, Avant-garde seemed relatively stress-free and prepared to spell every word she received in the contest, with only one tricky word giving her any hesitation: “nepeta,” a type of flowering mint named after Nepete, an ancient Etruscan city.

“Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, was runner-up,” Nuckols reported. “Both Zaila and Chaitra are coached by Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up.”

Nuckols added that “Zaila also breaks a streak dating back to 2008 during which at least one champion or co-champion was of South Asian descent.”


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