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Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, Louisiana celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World
Zaila Avant-garde is the first Black contestant to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1998Image: John Raoux/AP/picture alliance
OffbeatUnited States of America

First African American wins US spelling bee

July 9, 2021

Zaila Avant-garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, taking home the top prize of $50,000. She also holds several Guinness World Records for her basketball dribbling skills.


Zaila Avant-garde on Thursday became the first Black American champion in the 96-year history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word "Murraya."

The 14-year-old was also the second Black winner of the contest; the only other being Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998, who was also the only winner from outside the United States.

By correctly spelling "Murraya," a genus of small trees, she claimed the top prize of $50,000 (€42,240).

Avant-garde's victory was ground-breaking in a competition that has been recently dominated by contestants of South Asian heritage. At least one champion or co-champion since 2008 has Indian-origin.

Near miss on 'Nepeta'

A stumble in the previous round, where she struggled with another botanical word, "Nepeta," nearly cost her the championship. But she remained calm, paused for a moment, collected herself and started again — this time getting the second "e" right.

Avant-garde jumped with joy after being told she was correct.

"I've always struggled with that word," she later said. "I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are, and I can't get you."

Past accomplishments

Avant-garde from Harvey, Louisiana is also an accomplished basketball player who hopes to one day play in the WNBA.

She holds three holds Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

Avant-garde told the Associated Press she hoped to inspire other Black Americans who often didn't have the money to pay for tutorials needed to remain competitive.

"I'm hoping that within the next few years, I can see a little bit of an influx of African Americans, and (there were) not many Hispanic people, either, so I'm hoping to see them there, too,'' she said.

USA Spelling Bee Wettbewerb 2021 l Siegerin Zaila Avant-Garde
Zaila Avant-Garde won the final round by correctly spelling the word, 'Murraya'Image: John Raoux/AP/picture alliance

New rules

This year's competition was different from the previous ones, due to the coronavirus pandemic which led to the cancellation of last year's spelling bee.

It also had new rules meant to avoid multiple co-winners, like the eight "octa-champs" of 2019.

Five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first round.

Chaitra Thummala, 12, of San Francisco, came in second, winning $25,000, while Bhavana Madini, 13, of New York finished third with the $15,000 prize.

adi/sms (Reuters, AP)

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