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Zaila Avant-garde wins 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming bee’s first African American champion

Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from the New Orleans area, won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, becoming the bee’s first African American champion in its 96-year history.

Avant-garde spelled “murraya” correctly to win the competition, after conquering words such as “retene,” “ancistroid” and “depreter” over multiple rounds. Upon her win, Avant-garde, who is also a talented basketball player with three Guinness World Records in dribbling, jumped up and down and let out an excited shout as confetti rained down on the stage.

The teen said Friday that “it felt really good to be a winner” after she had been practicing for two years. Avant-garde, who tied for 370th place in the 2019 competition, credited the win to her tutors and “a bit of luck.” She told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she hopes her historic win will inspire other young Black people in the United States to excel at spelling.

“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,” said Avant-garde, who is also the first winner from the state of Louisiana. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees and that’s a bit sad, because it’s a really good thing … and kind of is a gate-opener to be interested in education.”

Former president Barack Obama, in a tweet Friday morning, congratulated Avant-garde: “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.”

Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from San Francisco, and Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from New York City, came in second and third place, respectively. Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won the bee in 1998, was the competition’s first Black champion.

The competition marked the bee’s return after the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation last year for the first time since World War II. The pandemic’s influence was still apparent at the event, which was considerably smaller compared with past years: Only 11 finalists traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the final rounds were held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Preliminary rounds, typically held in the days leading up to the spelling bee finals, had instead been held virtually over the past several weeks.

On Thursday night, the finalists — some of them still too young to be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine — wore masks when they were not at the microphone and sat in chairs spaced several feet from one another. A limited number of people, mostly family members, were in the audience.

Still, spellers said they were grateful to have an in-person bee once again, which in typical years is as much an opportunity for the spellers to form friendships and community with one another as it is a competition.

“Thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s been — we really needed the spelling bee this year and I’m really thankful for this opportunity,” speller Avani Joshi, a 13-year-old from Illinois, said upon elimination on the word “gewgaw.”

The competition sped along compared with past years, too. In 2019, eight spellers were named co-champions, after an astounding 20 rounds in which they all spelled their words correctly. By the end of the first round Thursday night, only six spellers remained, and the entire event wrapped up within two hours.

There were plenty of suspenseful moments, including one in which the judges needed to go to the tape to replay speller Roy Seligman’s spelling of the word “ambystoma.” After conferring with other officials, judge Mary Brooks turned to Roy and reluctantly dinged the bell to indicate he had been eliminated.

Avant-garde admitted Friday that she thought one word would end her run: “nepeta,” a genus of flowering plants that includes catnip. Getting the word right brought a sense of relief that lifted her through the rest of the competition, she said.

“If I had gotten out on that word, it would have been the worst feeling ever,” she told ABC. “That would have really sucked if I had gotten it wrong.”

There was little drama surrounding the word that clinched the title for the home-schooled teen: “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic or Australian trees. “Does this word contain the English name Murray, which could be the name of a comedian?” she asked the judges, who chuckled at the question. She proceeded to quickly spell out the seven-letter word and claim victory.

First lady Jill Biden met with the finalists and their families Thursday evening before the competition started, telling them she admired their bravery and confidence.

Biden noted that she had been her school’s sixth-grade spelling champion — but chickened out on the day of the regional competition.

“I told my mother that I was sick, because I was too scared to get up in front of everybody,” said Biden, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

Avant-garde, who told that she had studied about 13,000 words a day, already had a following due to her world-record-level dribbling skills on the basketball court. The teen, whose father changed her last name from Heard to Avant-garde in honor of jazz legend John Coltrane, holds the Guinness World Records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously, the most basketball bounces and the most bounce juggles in one minute. She has more than 27,000 followers on Instagram and even appeared in a commercial with NBA superstar Stephen Curry.

After spelling competitively for only two years, she said she was “going to have lots of fun” following the Scripps win. She reiterated Friday that her dreams include attending Harvard University, playing professional basketball and working for NASA. Social media was flooded with congratulatory notes for her, and actor Anthony Mackie invited her to the ESPY Awards, which he is hosting.

When asked on NBC’s “Today” show what she was going to do with her $50,000 prize, Avant-garde recalled the time she won $10,000 from another spelling bee and how she had said she would stick the money under the floorboards “for security.”

“But $50,000, that would be a lot of dollars,” she said with a smile, “and I don’t think my floorboards could fit it.”