As she stood on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage, Zaila Avant-garde recognized the significance of what she was doing, throwing questions about Greek and Latin origins at pronouncer Jacques Bailly.
AP News reports that Zaila was well aware that she would be the first African American to win the bee. She knew that Black youngsters throughout the country were looking to be inspired and follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them. She also remembered MacNolia Cox, the first Black finalist in the spelling bee in 1936, who wasn’t permitted to stay at the same hotel as the other spellers.
But she never let the situation overwhelm her, and she grinned with confidence when she heard what turned out to be her winning word—“Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian plants. It had come to a glorious end.
Zaila leaped and danced with delight after being crowned winner, only flinching in surprise as confetti was thrown into the stage.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila stated.
Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, the only previous Black champion, was also the sole international winner in 1998. Over the last two decades, the bee has remained a showcase for spellers of color, with children of South Asian ancestry dominating the competition. Since 2008, at least one Indian-American winner has won every year. Zaila’s victory ends that trend.
Zaila has other things on her mind, which may explain why she won this year’s bee. The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, is a basketball prodigy who has three Guinness World Records for simultaneously dribbling multiple balls and aspires to play in the WNBA or maybe coach in the NBA one day. Even though she practiced for seven hours a day, she viewed spelling as a side interest.
“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again,” Zaila added, “but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it.” then “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”
Many of the best Scripps spellers begin competing in kindergarten. Zaila just began a few years ago, when her father, Jawara Spacetime, saw the bee on TV and recognized that his daughter’s proclivity for mental math might be applied to spelling. In 2019, she improved rapidly enough to qualify for nationals, however, she was eliminated in the preliminary stages.
That’s when she began to take it seriously and hired a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and 2015 Scripps runner-up.
“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,” Shafer-Ray explained. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’” says the speaker.
Shafer-Ray immediately knew his trainee has exceptional abilities.
“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. He explained, “She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim. … 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.”
She was sometimes more knowledgeable than she put on. She explained that one of her strategies was to inquire about origins that weren’t part of the term she was given in order to rule them out.
She had difficulties with only one word: “nepeta,” a mint genus, and she leaped even higher when she got it right than when she received the prize.
“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 explained. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”
Zaila—her father gave her the surname Avant-garde in honor of jazz artist John Coltrane—is the sole survivor of a rare bee, the first in more than 25 months. Because of the coronavirus epidemic, last year’s bee was canceled, and this years was heavily modified to reduce the risk to children and their families.
The majority of the bee was held online, with just the 11 finalists competing in person in a tiny section of the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus in Florida, which also hosted the NBA playoff bubble last year. Only the spellers’ close families, Scripps employees, a few members of the media—and first lady Jill Biden, who talked to the spellers and stayed to watch—were in attendance.
The only sound in the arena was the unamplified voice of ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi speaking into a television microphone at times.
After the 2019 competition finished in an eight-way tie, the bee’s format was also changed. This year, five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first onstage round, despite Scripps’ word selection being no match for the best spellers that year. Then came this year’s bee’s new twist: multiple-choice vocabulary questions. Those were correctly spelled by all six remaining spellers.
Zaila triumphed so quickly—the bee was done in just two hours—that another innovation, a lightning-round tiebreaker, wasn’t required.
She’ll go away with over $50,000 in cash and gifts. Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and another Shafer-Ray student came in second. She still has two years of eligibility left and is already one of the favorites for next year. Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, came in third and may return.
“Zaila deserved it. Chaitra stated, “She’s always been better than me, I could review a lot more words. I could get a stronger work ethic.”