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Meet Zaila Avant-garde: The First African-American Winner Of The Scripps Spelling Bee, And Basketball Prodigy

On Thursday night, history was made as 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde became the first African-American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

The winning word was “Murraya,” which is a species of shrub or small tree native to Asia and Australia. In a heartwarming clip below, watch Avant-garde dance with glee as she conquered the final word that would crown her as the nation’s winner:

“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” said Avant-garde, whose confidence in her abilities is admirable. But it’s certainly not in vain, as her spelling coach Cole Shafer-Ray (2015 runner-up of the Scripps spelling bee) described his pupil as different than any speller he’s ever witnessed. 

“She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim. She knew not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else,” he said in an interview with ESPN

Discovering that the bee has endured for 96 years without an African-American winner was rather appalling. Until now, the fictional character Akeelah from the esteemed movie Akeelah and the Bee has served as inspiration, but Avant-garde provides a real-life example of groundbreaking Black excellence.

Keke Palmer, who starred as Akeelah, shared her excitement about Avant-garde’s historical win in an Instagram post. “THE REAL LIFE AKEELAH YOU GUYS!! The real life one. I’m so happy in my heart,” she said. “A couple of weeks ago I sent in a video encouraging all the contestants and for this to happen just feels so spiritual! I am so happy. Major love to Doug Atchinson [who] allowed me to act a dream and thank God for letting me live to see it come to fruition.”

Zaila Avant-Garde | Baton Rouge Parents Magazine

To truly understand her innate talent in spelling, it’s important to know that Avant-garde described spelling as a side hobby, as her main priority is basketball. No big deal, but the 14-year-old also happens to have three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple basketballs simultaneously.“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said in an interview with AP. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.” 

And yet, Avant-garde is especially dedicated to spelling, and spends almost a full work day practicing. “For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”

Below, watch Avant-garde’s extraordinary gifts in action––both on the court and on the stage.

Ayanna Nicole

Hi! I’m Ayanna, a 28-year-old writer and artist. Although I graduated from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte with two degrees in art and psychology, I’ve had a passion for writing for as long as I can remember. By following my dreams and utilizing my creativity, I designed Jaro Magazine with the ultimate intention of bringing more positive stories in the black community to the forefront, while also highlighting our versatile and vibrant culture through Jaro’s four modes: film, books, art, and music. I’m into spirituality, nature walks, music festivals, poetry, traveling without a destination in mind, painting, and discussing everything out of the ordinary with other curious minds.

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