A teenager from Louisiana has made history by becoming the first African American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the competition's second Black winner since its inception.
Zaila Avant-garde lept in the air after triumphantly spelling the word “Murraya” correctly, securing her historic win. The word is defined as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.”
The highly competitive tournament made its return this year after being postponed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Zaila, an eighth-grader, beat out 208 other young hopefuls for the title at the finals held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida on July 8.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila told the Associated Press.
“I can’t even put into words how I feel right now,” she told NPR. “I’d like to say thank you to Bill Murray because the reason I knew that word ‘murraya’ was because of the movie Lost in Translation, which when I was a little kid I used to listen to the soundtrack and so that’s how that word was stuck in my head because it was spelled like Bill Murray’s name.”
Zaila is the first from her hometown to win the contest and the competition’s second Black winner in its 96-year history. The first was Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.
The newly crowned champ, whose training regimen includes studying 13,000 words a day, is no stranger to impressive feats. The eighth-grader hopes to one day play in the WNBA and, when she’s not spelling, is known as a basketball prodigy whose skills include dribbling three balls while riding a unicycle.
She currently holds three Guinness world records for her basketball skills, including a record for most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs.
Making her second appearance at the Scripps contest, Zaila went 18 rounds, taking on words, including “fidibus,” “solidungulate,” and “alpargata,” to reach the final stage.
Runner-up Chaitra Thummala fell short of the title in the 17th round after incorrectly spelling "neroli oil."
Zaila’s win includes a cash prize of $50,000 from Scripps and an additional $2,500 cash prize from Merriam-Webster, the Bee’s dictionary partner.
Adam Symson, president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company, presented the championship trophy and hailed its newest champ for a stellar performance.
“Zaila demonstrated incredible mastery of the English language with poise and perseverance. The excellence of all of our competitors, their hard work and commitment to learning, and their distinct stories, capture hearts and minds across the globe,” said Symson.
While the competition was not open to spectators, one high-profile guest in attendance was first lady Jill Biden, who met with contestants and their families and gave a brief address.
“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 told the young contestants. “The truth was that I was too nervous to go, so I have incredible admiration for each and every one of you.”
Zaila’s notable win and her overall excellence have won her new fans online.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell was among the well-wishers, writing, “We’re all so proud of you!!”