With the correct spelling of “murraya,” Zaila Avant-garde was named champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 14-year-old is the first Black American, and the first competitor from Louisiana to take home the trophy. After confirmation of correct spelling from the judges, her smile stretched ear to ear as she twirled in celebration. During the post-match interview, she shared excitement for taking home the Scripps Cup however, according to the tournament, Avant-garde takes home a $50,000 cash prize.
According to the New York Times, the first Black winner in program history was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica who took the title in 1998.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said according to ESPN.
This year marked the return of the Scripps National Spelling Bee after the 2020 competition was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, for the first time since World War II. In February, the comeback was announced and revealed to have a different format than in previous years. For the adolescents competing in the first spelling bee since COVID-19, the preliminaries, quarterfinals, and semifinals were held virtually with only the top dozen spellers traveling to Florida for the finals.
“The Scripps National Spelling Bee is back, and with it, the tradition of watching a tremendous group of spellers take on the dictionary,” said Dr. J. Michael Durnil, executive director of the Bee, in a press release issued this May.
For Zaila, who has only been competing in spelling for two years, the win came right on time as this marks her last year of eligibility. According to ESPN, her father Jawara Spacetime figured her gift for math would translate well into dominating the Bee. After she did not make it past preliminary rounds in 2019, she began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 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 said to the sports news platform. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?'”
He continued, “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.”
After the teenager’s win, an outpour of congratulations on social media came from celebrities and more. Public figures, from famed actress Halle Berry to former President Barack Obama, used Twitter to show support of her historical win.
“Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ!” tweeted Obama. “Congrats, Zaila—your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you.”
Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila—your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you. https://t.co/UaYoRMGirZ
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 9, 2021
Despite being the current Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, the Guinness World Records mentioned by the 44th U.S. president have nothing to do with spelling. Zaila not only dominates on the stage while spelling but also on the court while playing basketball. The young athlete holds multiple dribbling records including one for most basketballs dribbled simultaneously. The platform profiled her for their March 2020 Women’s Month series where she named all-star athletes Serena Williams, and Coco Gauff, as well as activist Malala Yousafzain as inspiration.
“I hope to one day make it all the way to the WNBA. Dribbling is just one part of my overall basketball skill set,” she said to Guinness World Records.
Guinness shared excitement for Zaila’s spelling bee win on Twitter.
“Congratulations to our record holder Zaila Avant-garde who won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee last night!” read its celebratory tweet.
Congratulations to our record holder Zaila Avant-garde who won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee last night!
Zaila holds three basketball dribbling records and is looking to set more – she also features in the upcoming #GWR2022! pic.twitter.com/3peSggJ6T9
— Guinness World Records (@GWR) July 9, 2021
Watch Zaila’s final spelling of “murraya” and subsequent celebration below: