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Zaila Avant-garde Wins 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee; 1st African American Champ

Blake SchusterContributor IJuly 9, 2021

AP Photo/John Raoux

Eighth-grader Zaila Avant-garde won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, becoming the first African American champion in the competition's history.   

One year after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancelation of the annual tournament and two years after eight contestants were named co-champions, the native of Louisiana correctly spelled the word "Murraya"—a type of tree—to claim this year's title and the $50,000 prize that comes with it.

TSN @TSN_Sports

Zaila Avant-garde is the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion! 🏆 <a href="https://t.co/eNsy35ctcW">pic.twitter.com/eNsy35ctcW</a>

Standing in the same room at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, where the 2020 NBA Finals were held, the aspiring WNBA star battled past a final field of 11 contestants from around the country and the Bahamas en route to the title. 

Along the way she correctly spelled retene, Nepeta,  fidibus,  depreter,  duchesse,  ancistroid and rolamite as well as correctly identifying the definition of "dysphotic". 

It's a dramatic improvement for the 14-year-old who finished 370th in 2019. 

ESPN @espn

Zaila Avant-garde is an elite middle-school basketball prospect AND a 2021 Spelling Bee finalist 🏀🐝<br><br>Look out for her and other Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists TONIGHT! <br><br>📺: 8 PM ET on ESPN2 <a href="https://t.co/ce0wmADJv9">pic.twitter.com/ce0wmADJv9</a>

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In addition to her incredible spelling abilities, Avant-garde holds multiple Guinness World Records in basketball—she hopes to coach in the NBA after conquering the WNBA.

espnW @espnW

Zaila Avant-garde ✨<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SpellingBee?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SpellingBee</a> finalist 🤝 Guinness World Record holder. <a href="https://t.co/yiSn6kTCwy">pic.twitter.com/yiSn6kTCwy</a>

New Orleans Pelicans @PelicansNBA

A hooper too! 🏀<br><br>Congrats Zaila 🏆 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SpellingBee?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SpellingBee</a> <a href="https://t.co/3rAgG0hgyG">https://t.co/3rAgG0hgyG</a> <a href="https://t.co/V3XjgL2aCo">pic.twitter.com/V3XjgL2aCo</a>

Among the words that stumped the remaining finalists were ambystoma,  chrysal, cloxacillin, athanor, neroli oil, heliconius, torticollis, gewgaw, platylepadid and trochiline.

Three contestants were knocked out in succession during the first round as Avant-garde continued to breeze through her questions and win over social media at the same time. 

Pablo S. Torre @PabloTorre

It feels like we’ll be watching Zaila Avant-garde be incredible at stuff for a long, long time. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/spellingbee?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#spellingbee</a>

Kalyn Kahler @kalynkahler

ZAILA IS SO COOL she tells the judges more info about the words than they know!!! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/scrippsspellingbee?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#scrippsspellingbee</a>

Meredith Shiner @meredithshiner

YOU WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE, ZAILA!!! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/spellingbee?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#spellingbee</a>

Adam Symson @asymson

Congratulations Zaila Avant-garde. You are the Champion! <a href="https://twitter.com/ScrippsBee?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ScrippsBee</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/EWScrippsCo?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@EWScrippsCo</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SpellingBee?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SpellingBee</a> <a href="https://t.co/KibuhbPEHP">pic.twitter.com/KibuhbPEHP</a>

Seth Davis @SethDavisHoops

The winning word was Murraya. <br><br>Zaila is from New Orleans, has only been spelling for two years and holds three Guinness World Records for juggling basketballs. <br><br>Ain’t that America.

After the 2019 tournament ended with Octochamps, Scripps altered the rules this year to include a 90-second Spell Off that would see how many words a finalist could spell in a minute-and-a-half. It was almost needed on Thursday.

Instead, sixth-grader Chaitra Thummala misspelled neroli oil in the final round, giving Avant-garde an opportunity to claim the title for herself. 

She'll head back to Louisiana with a trophy, prize money and another achievement added to a resume that's quickly growing by the day. 

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