14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde made history as she became the first African-American to win the prestigious Scripps spelling competition in its 96 year history.
She was named the winner after successfully spelling the word ‘murraya,’ a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.
Through her win, Avant-garde, from Louisiana, has broken a record in the competition’s nearly 100-year history. The Scripps National Spelling Bee was inaugurated in 1925.
Before Avant-garde’s win, the Spelling Bee had only recorded one Black winner, Jody-Anne Maxwell who represented Jamaica in 1998.
Despite her landmark win Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day ahead of the competition.
She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.
This year’s spelling bee was delayed because of the pandemic and all preliminary rounds were held virtually. Only the 11 finalists competed in person Thursday night, at an ESPN campus near Walt Disney World in Florida.
The teenager and her competitors were given a pep talk ahead of the bee by First Lady Jill Biden, who said: ‘I wanted to be here personally to tell you that the president and I are so proud of all that you’ve accomplished.’
Speaking to reporters, Jill Biden revealed she was also a talented speller in her youth. ‘In sixth grade, I was my school’s spelling bee champion. I had a chance to go to the next level, but on the day of the regional competition, I told my mother that I was sick’, she said.
‘The truth was that I was too nervous to go, so I have incredible admiration for each and every one of you.’
Mrs Biden then sat in the audience with some of the families and watched as the young spellers got picked off one-by-one until Zaila was eventually named the winner.
Chaitra Thummala who won the second place was confronted with the word ‘neroli oil,’ a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly that is used in cologne and as a flavoring, she fumbled on the vowels, leading Zaila to claim victory.
As she realized she was the winner, Zaila twirled and jumped in the air with excitement.
Both Zaila and Chaitra are coached by Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up.