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Scripps National Spellking Bee

Zaila Avant-garde won the national spelling bee, but that wasn’t her first real victory

The 14-year-old is also a Guinness World Record holder


Whether dribbling a basketball, breaking juggling records or identifying obscure Latin or Greek words, Zaila Avant-garde shows no stress under pressure. She has the ultimate poker face.

The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, breezed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship on Thursday night, becoming the first African American winner and only the second Black champion in the bee’s 96-year history. Zaila’s winning word was Murraya, a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.

“Does this word contain the English name ‘Murray,’ which could be the name of a comedian?” she asked the judges, who chuckled in response. Zaila made the connection to actor Bill Murray, reminiscing about listening to the Lost in Translation movie soundtrack as a child. All she needed was that name of origin before rapidly spelling it and winning the bee.

Zaila has undoubtedly been turned into a celebrity following the big win and has appeared on Good Morning America, the Today Show and CBS This Morning. But who was she before becoming the 2021 spelling champion? Here are a few things you should know about her:

She’s home-schooled

She’s been home-schooled her entire life. Zalia says she likes it because it’s flexible with her busy schedule and allows her the comfort of learning at home with her family, including parents Alma Heard and Jawara Spacetime. During the coronavirus pandemic, Zaila and her grandfather, a retired physics professor, studied math, physics, scientific thinking and reasoning for six to nine hours a week.

She’s a world-record holder

Zaila currently holds three Guinness World Record titles:

She studied and prepared for the bee with other Scripps finalists

When it came down to Zaila’s winning word, she was up against Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old speller from Frisco, Texas, who had just misspelled the compound word “neroli oil,” making her the runner-up. The two skillful spellers actually knew each other before the bee. They share a tutor, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up, and practiced together virtually before the tournament.

Making it to the WNBA would be cool, but …

Yes, Zaila dreams of making it to the WNBA like her idols Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi. She hopes to play for the Minnesota Lynx someday. Still, basketball was not always her first love. “Basketball started when I was 5 years old and the reason was not because it interested me, but it interested my parents to get me not bouncing around the house causing trouble,” she told ESPN.

Zaila says that winning the bee is cooler than making it to the WNBA because of her hard work in preparation for the competition. “For spelling,” Zaila said, “I usually try to do about 13,000 words [per day], and that usually takes about seven hours or so.”

She has been prioritizing spelling for two years and has placed in the top 10 in several feeder bees such as North South Foundation, SpellPundit, South Asian Spelling Bee and Words of Wisdom. We asked her how many words she could do in the spell-off, and the range is 16-18 and up to 30 – if she rattles off letters really fast. Zaila hopes to go to Harvard one day besides playing in the WNBA, and wants to be an NBA coach and a NASA scientist.

ESPN’s Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

A senior broadcast journalism major from Orange County, Calif., Sarah Jones-Smith writes for The Hilltop, Howard University’s student newspaper, and her writing has been published by The Los Angeles Wave, and more.