Zaila Avant-Garde is the first African American in the 96-year history of Scripps National Spelling to win the top prize.
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, an eighth-grader from Harvey, Los Angelese, won the prestigious competition — and $50,000. “It made me feel really proud,” she said after clinching the victory. “I’m really hoping lots of little brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it’s really a fun thing to do and it’s a great way to kind of connect yourself with education, which is super important.”
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Her triumph marks the return of the annual competition, which did not happen last year because of the pandemic. Zaila competed in 2019 but didn’t make it to the finals. “I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” she said. The 14-year-old only looked troubled with her second-last word, Nepeta, another plant genus. Pausing at the unstressed sound in the middle of word, she collected herself, started again, and nailed the second “e”.
“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times,” she said. “I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right.” After the tournament was cancelled in 2020, Zaila considered calling time on her spelling, which she described as a side hobby despite practising for seven hours a day.
The 14-year-old from Louisiana is a basketball prodigy who owns three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously and hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA. “I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness World Records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”