Zaila Avant-garde holds her trophy after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Photo Credit: Joe Skipper / REUTERS.
Zaila Avant-garde holds her trophy after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Photo Credit: Joe Skipper / REUTERS.

Zaila Avant-Garde, teen makes history as the first African American winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee


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The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee was historic, as Zaila Avant-Garde became the first African American winner of the 96-year-old competition. 

She is just the second Black person to win the national spelling competition, after Jody-Anne Maxwell, representing Jamaica, won it back in 1998.

Avant-Garde, a 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana (also the first time a contestant from the state has won), took home the top prize at this year’s competition by correctly spelling the final word, “murraya.”

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, murraya is “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.”

The teen emerged as the winner of the competition that included 209 contestants from around the globe, ranging in ages from nine to 15. She was one of 11 contestants to compete in the final round. 

"It made me feel really proud," Avant-Garde told NPR after the win. "I'm really hoping lots of little Brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it's really a fun thing to do and it's a great way to kind of connect yourself with education which is super important."

As the winner, Avant-Garde will receive a $50,000 cash prize, as well as a commemorative medal, the official “Scripps Cup” championship trophy and more. 

Beyond her talents within the spelling realm, she also has a number of other skills and interests. Her primary focus has been on honing her skills in the sport of basketball.

She holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball talents — the most bounces in a minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs and a tied record for most basketballs dribbled at once by a single person. 

She hopes that her passion and work in the sport will translate to her making the 2022 USA Basketball under-16 national team. 

Her more long-term goals include playing college basketball at Harvard University, and then turning her sights to the professional league — whether overseas or in the WNBA. She has also left the door open for a potential career at NASA, as well as further interests in neuroscience and gene editing. 

The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee was the first in two years, as the 2020 edition of the competition was canceled due to the pandemic. It was the first time the event had been cancelled since 1945, due to World War II.

This year’s edition saw new rules added, in particular, a spell-off round, in which contestants would spell the list of championship words in 90 seconds. 

This was done, in part, to avoid any potential ties and to increase the chances of finding one true champion, as the 2019 edition of the competition crowned a record eight winners.   

The 2014, 2015 and 2016 editions of the competition each also ended in a tie, at two a-piece. 

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