Two years of practice were enough to crown a brand new, history-making winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Fourteen-year-old Zaila Avant-garde from New Orleans, Louisiana, won the competition, correctly spelling “querimonious,” “solidungulate,” and the final winning word, “murraya” — a type of tree.
“Does this word contain the English name Murray, which could be the name of a comedian?” she asked the judges when presented the word. She spelled it immediately after, to take home the championship title and $50,000 in cash.
She is the first African American to win, and only the second Black winner, following Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica in 1998. She’s also the first winner from Louisiana.
Avant-garde’s success in spelling has come through hard work and dedication. She has finished in the top six 11 times at the National level. She spelled “alla prima” to win in the qualification round, while spelling words such as ediacaran, hellebore, appaloosa, and occitan in local competitions.
But Avant-garde isn’t just a tremendous speller. She’s passionate about basketball as well and just earned place in the Guinness Book of World Records three times for skills related to dribbling. You can find her featured in a commercial with Stephen Curry of the Golden Warriors.
More? She’s a math whiz, too.
Avant-garde’s passion and talent for spelling dates back age 9, when her dad watched the Scripps competition on ESPN and asked her to spell the winning word. She did just that…and continued to spell most of the winning words back to 1999. Her dad was surprised to hear where his daughter had read the words.
Her training regimen for spelling includes working on “about 13,000 words,” which takes about seven hours a day. She works those hours around school, basketball, and the rest of her active life.
According to The New York Times, Avant-garde’s father is responsible for her badass name, too. He changed her last name from Heard to Avant-garde in honor of John Coltrane.
The 2020 Scripps Spelling Bee was canceled in the wake of COVID-19, and Avant-garde succeeds the “octochamps” from 2019, eight 12–14 year olds who shared the title of winner.
The history of the spelling bee is a fascinating one, with origins in colonization and the belief in a single standard of English. In 1994, Scripps’s Bee turned into a mega spectator sport through its debut on ESPN. The competitions have become exceptionally challenging for young spellers, with intense strategies employed by spellers and their parents to ensure success. As anthropologist Shalini Shankar notes in Beeline, “While some kids participate in regional bees with about 25 other spellers, others go up against hundreds of school bee champions. Many highly talented spellers were not advancing to the Bee due to the tremendous volume of competitors in the region.”
There’s also a long legacy of South Asian finalists and winners throughout the last few decades of the competition.
So how do you measure up to a 14-year-old when it comes to spelling? Try your hand at this Scripps test to see.