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Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American to win the Scripps Spelling Bee

[July 10, 2021: Mia Mercado]


A champion!! Photo: John Raoux/AP/Shutterstock


What were you doing at 14? Picking popcorn out of your braces and updating your AIM away message? Yelling at your mom for getting the wrong trifold poster board? Googling “hair in armpits how long is normal”? Well, eighth-grader Zaila Avant-garde has you beat and not just because her last name is literally “avant-garde.”


Thursday night, Avant-garde won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee after correctly spelling the word, “murraya,” which is a type of tree more commonly known as orange jasmine. Also, if you Google “murraya,” there’s a celebratory little Easter egg. Avant-garde snuck her own little Easter egg into the competition, making a Bill Murray reference before winning the bee.



With her win, the 14-year-old became the first person from Louisiana and the first Black American to win the bee. Per the New York Times, the first Black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica who won the bee in 1998. “I’m hoping that in a few years, I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee,” she said, per the Times, calling the bee a “gate-opener to being interested in education.”



Setting records is nothing new to Avant-garde. She currently holds three Guinness World Records, all of which she earned before she turned 13: the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and a tie for the most basketballs dribbled at once (six) by one person. Also, she can dribble multiple basketballs while riding a unicycle, speed read, and divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head.


“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Avant-garde said in an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”



Avant-garde’s recent win is even more impressive considering she only started competitively spelling two years ago. “I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said, per the New Orleans Times-Picayune.



Despite being entitled to any and all bragging rights, Avant-garde remains more grounded than I remember being as a very unaccomplished eighth-grader. “I think the more that the achievements and triumphs of women are promoted and publicized, the more likely it is that other girls all around the world will see that they can do any and everything that they put their minds to,” she previously said.



What’s next for the 14-year-old? Avant-garde hopes to someday play in the WNBA, attend Harvard, and has also expressed interest in archeology, neuroscience, and gene editing. But first, she’ll finish ninth grade.



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