After 93 years of National Spelling Bee competitions, a Black American student is walking away with the trophy for the first time ever. 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde made Spelling Bee history on Thursday when she correctly spelled “murraya.” Avant-garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee after just two years of practicing competitively.
The joy following the moment she won was palpable for viewers. After asking if the word “murraya” contained a name, like a comedian, and inquiring about the word’s language of origin, Avant-garde correctly spelled the word, instantly smiling and putting her hands on her head before twirling, jumping, and laughing on stage as confetti swirled around her.
“It felt really good to be a winner at something because of the fact that I have been, like, working on it for like two years,” Avant-garde, who is also the first student from New Orleans to take home the title, told Good Morning America on Friday. “To finally have it, like the best possible outcome, it was really good.”
While Avant-garde is the first Black American student to hoist the National Spelling Bee trophy (and pocket the hefty $50,000 cash prize), she’s not the first Black student to do so. That title goes to Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, who was crowned Spelling Bee champion in 1998.
But crushing national competitions just two years into the competitive spelling bee game isn’t the only thing at which Avant-garde excels. As it turns out, she also holds three (count ’em, three!) Guinness world records for dribbling, bouncing, and juggling basketballs. And just to make the rest of us feel better about our accomplishments, she did it all before entering the ninth grade.
In 2018, she appeared in a commercial with NBA star Steph Curry, and can, as The New York Times reports, “divide 5-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head.” She says it’s her dream to one day play in the WNBA.
“Will probably be our president someday,” one Twitter user posted. “So, Zalia Avant-garde, who just won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee ALSO has a sick hesi-cross-over step back jumper. What an impressive human,” another tweeted.
So I’ve known about this girl for years and it’s for being an absolute hoooooper. Already a huge fan and to now see she won the National Spelling Bee?! Incredible. Check out her IG: https://t.co/cgWMA16Y3n
— C.J. Toledano (@CJToledano) July 9, 2021
So, Zalia Avant-garde, who just won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee ALSO has a sick hesi-cross-over step back jumper. What an impressive human. https://t.co/yaAqsQjxHm
— Rob Centa (@RobCenta) July 9, 2021
Ok. And lil sis is a baller. We call this a flex. We call this range. We call this options. https://t.co/ZL5aPM6nVv
— Total help me sing (@ASmith86) July 9, 2021
A slew of famous politicians, athletes, and celebrities took to Twitter to congratulate Avant-garde on her history-making win. “Congratulations Zaila!” First Lady Jill Biden, who attended the competition, tweeted. “Talk about #blackgirlmagic!” LaToya Cantrell, the Mayor of New Orleans, posted. We’re all so proud of you!!” Here are just a few of the other well-known celebrity’s reactions to Avant-garde’s spelling bee skills:
Congratulations, Zaila on making history – and making us all proud. https://t.co/HrFNW7S6SH
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) July 9, 2021
— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 9, 2021
Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila—your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you. https://t.co/UaYoRMGirZ
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 9, 2021
In the wake of the most devastating moments of the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities, and a racial awakening in the country due to the murder of George Floyd and many other unarmed Black people, it cannot be understated how culturally important it is to watch Black excellence in action. That a Black student is thriving not in one area, but multiple areas that celebrate both physical and intellectual prowess, is an important moment of representation for many other Black children.
“I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee,” Avant-garde said in the same Good Morning America interview. “Because it’s kind of sad that there’s a great lack of those people. You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees, and that’s a bit sad because it’s like a really good thing — it’s kind of a gate opener to being interested in education.”
Avant-garde told Good Morning America‘s George Stephanopoulos that she has one plan for celebrating her historical win: “Have lots of fun.”
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