Zaila Avant-garde, a 14 year old from Louisiana, on Thursday became the first African-American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States – breaking the 12-year spell of students of Indian descent winning the competition.
A spelling bee is a contest in which participants must spell aloud words announced by a judge. The high-profile Scripps National Spelling Bee is closely followed by students and their parents across the US and the finals are broadcast on prime-time television. This year, the winner got a cash prize of $50,000.
Of the 11 finalists of the Scripps spelling bee held in the ESPN Sports Complex in Florida’s Orlando, Florida, nine were Indian-American. In the final round, Avant-garde was pitted against Chaitra Thummula from California, who dropped out after being unable to spell “neroli oil” correctly.
Avant-garde scored her victory after spelling the word “murraya”, a genus of tropical Australian trees.
As it turns out, Avant-garde excels at much more than spelling. She holds three Guinness World Records for her skills in dribbling six basketballs simultaneously, the most basketball bounces and bounce juggles.
The teenager is a champion basketball player and has said that she hopes to compete in the Women’s National Basketball Association when she grows up. Ahead of the spelling bee finals, ESPN shared a video of Avant-garde playing basketball.
Since members of the Indian-American community have been winning the competition since 2008, Avant-garde’s win stood out. There has been only one Black winner of the competition so far, a student from Jamaica in 1998.
Avant-garde – whose father changed her last name from Heard as a mark of respect to jazz musician John Coltrane – said she hoped that more members of the African-American community will be inspired to participate in the competition.
“Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling programme, they don’t have access to that,” she said told the Associated Press.
After her victory, Avant-garde said that had taken up competitive spelling only two years ago. “Spelling is really a side thing I do,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”