Zalia Avant-Garde Wins Scripps National Spelling Bee, First African American To Win
Zaila Avant-Garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee making her the first African American to win the competition.
Zaila also knew that black children around the country were watching the competition on ESPN2 on Thursday. She recognized MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist at the competition in 1936, who was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the children participating.
When the winning word, “Murraya” – a type of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees – was announced, she spelled it out confidently.
Once she was announced the winner, she expressed her joy by jumping and twirling.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” she said.
Before her, there had been just one black champion – Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica. The competition has been a showcase for participants of color over the past two decades. Children of South Asian descent dominate the competition. Avant-Garde’s victory broke a streak of at least one Indian-American champion every year since 2008.
Avant-Garde hails from Harvey, Louisiana. The 14-year-old is a basketball player who owns three Guinness World records for dribbling several balls simultaneously. Her goal is to be in the WNBA or to become a coach for the NBA. She said the spelling bee was a side hobby, despite having practiced seven hours a 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,” she said. “I can go out, like my Guinness World records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”
Many of the top spellers start competing in kindergarten. Avant-Garde started after her father Jawara Spacetime watched the competition on television and realized his daughter’s ability to do complex mental math could translate into spelling. She was able to make it to nationals in 2019 but decided to step down in the preliminary rounds.
After that, she dedicated more of her time to it and started working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was runner-up in 2015.
“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,” said Shafer-Ray. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?'”
“She just really had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” he said. “She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”
The only word she struggled with was “nepeta,” which is a genus of mints. She got excited when she spelled it correctly, more so than when she took the trophy.
“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right,” she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”
The winner takes home over $50,000 in cash and prizes.
The runner-up was Chaitra Thummala,12, from Frisco, Texas. Bhavana Madini, 13, from Plainview, New York won third place.
“Zaila deserved it. She’s always been better than me,” said Thummala. “I could review a lot more words. I could get a stronger work ethic.”