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10 Things To Know About National Spelling Bee Champion Zaila Avant-garde

By Aimee Crawford

Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Harvey, La., won the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, becoming the first African-American winner of the competition after nailing the winning word, “Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.

But the Bee could just be the beginning for the multi-talented Zaila, who also has her sights set on Harvard, NASA and the WNBA. Here are 10 things to know about the newest spelling champ:

Her win was historic

The first Black winner of the National Spelling Bee was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, who won the title in 1998. MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the Bee’s first Black finalist at the bee, wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers. Zaila understood the significance of being the first African-American to win — and how it could inspire others. “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 told “Good Morning America”.

Spelling is practically a full-time job

“I usually try to do about 13,000 words and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” said Avant-garde, who only began spelling competitively two years ago, in an interview with NOLA.com. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.” She works with a tutor, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up. They trained together virtually for the tournament. One of the few words that Zaila struggled with in the final round was “nepeta,” a genus of herbs. It was a word that she said had vexed her before. But … “I got it this time,” Zaila noted in an interview on ESPN after her win.

Spelling isn’t even her top skill

Zaila, who just finished eighth grade, also holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously, including most balls juggled in one minute with four basketballs, most dribbles in 30 seconds with four basketballs and most basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously, which she can do with six. “My favorite record is [most basketball juggles in one minute],” she said in a video for the Guinness World Records site. “Unlike some of the other records that seemed almost impossible, I knew I could definitely do that.” Zaila, who started perfecting her dribbling skills when she was five years old, practiced for two years before officially attempting to break the record. “I really like that record because it is one of my areas of specialty,” she said.

Her future could be on the basketball court …

“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila told the Associated Press. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.” Her highlight reel is full of impressive plays. “Dribbling is just one part of my basketball skillset,” she said. A point guard, Zaila has a strong handle and good court vision — and she can finish with both hands. She says her next big goal is to make the 2022 USA Basketball under-16 national team, then attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and maybe even coach an NBA team. The WNBA has already taken notice.

…. Or in outer space

She also wants to reach for the stars and become a NASA scientist just like astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space. Zaila has a mind for math too: she learned how to divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head, a skill she said she has a hard time explaining. “It’s like asking a millipede how they walk with all those legs,” said Zaila.

Her role models are record-holders too

Zaila lists Malala Yousafzai, Serena Williams and Coco Gauff among her heroes.They are all official Guinness World Records titleholders too. She earned social-media shoutouts from Oprah, First Lady Jill Biden (who attended the bee) and Billie Jean King. “There are a lot of record-holding women who inspire me,” Zaila said in her Guinness World Record Video, “including Silvia Vásquez-Lavado, a woman who climbed the largest mountain in all of the seven continents.” “Ever since I heard about the two women who won Nobel Prizes for gene editing, I’ve been looking into that too,” she told CNN. 

She co-starred in a commercial with Steph Curry

In 2018, she appeared in a commercial with Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry that showcased her skills. She also received a shoutout for her dribbling skills from rapper Michael Franti. 

She brings her competitive fire to both spelling and hoops

Zaila won last year’s Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee — and used the $10,000 first prize to pay for study materials and her tutoring sessions with Shafer-Ray. “Studying and knowing the roots of words is kind of like making a behind-the-back pass in basketball,” she told CBS This Morning. “If you study and know the roots, it’s really easy to get it right.”

She’s a master multi-tasker

She has close to 16,000 followers and counting on Twitter and gained more than 20,000 followers overnight on Instagram, where she shares videos of her dazzling juggling skills. Avant-garde was the silver medalist at the International Jugglers’ Association 2020 championship [Juniors Division (18U)] and she’s also an elite unicyclist. She can do both at the same time

Family comes first

Zaila — whose father, Jawara Spacetime changed her surname from Heard to Avant-garde in homage to the jazz great John Coltrane — has three younger brothers who help keep her humble. After she was declared the champion, Zaila jumped and twirled with joy. But before she officially celebrated her win, Zaila helped wrangle her youngest sibling.  “I had to chase my baby brother around the parking lot, and keep him from throwing rocks,” she told CBS This Morning.

Photo Credit: Twitter

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