Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Louisiana, won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, becoming the first African-American champion.
After clinching her win, Avant-garde twirled and jumped. Seconds later, confetti rained down.
“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 an interview with Good Morning America. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees, and that’s a bit sad because it’s a really good thing … it’s a gate-opener to being interested in education.”
Avant-garde triumphed over a field of 209 spellers, ranging in age from 9 to 15. There were 11 contestants in Thursday night’s final.
Michelle Obama congratulated the winner in a tweet on Friday morning: “Yes, Zaila! We are so, so proud of you!”
Former President Barack Obama congratulated Avant-garde in a tweet that pointed out her other accomplishments: “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.”
The awe at Avant-garde’s various talents was echoed by many.In addition to her spelling prowess, Avant-garde is an exceptional basketball player who has set three basketball-related Guinness world records. She can dribble six basketballs simultaneously in 30 seconds, bounce a ball 307 times in 30 seconds, and can juggle four basketballs 255 times. MSNBC writer and editor Hayes Brown wrote in a tweet early Friday morning: “So what you’re telling me is that Zaila Avant-garde is not only the spelling bee champion, she is also The Most Interesting 14-Year-Old in America.”
According to a New York Times profile of Avant-garde, she realized her affinity for spelling when she was 10. Her father asked her to spell the winning word for the 2017 Scripps Spelling Bee: marocain. She spelled it correctly, so he went through every winning word dating back to 1999. She spelled almost every word perfectly.
Avant-garde spelled the word “murraya” correctly for her win. She asked the pronouncer Jacques Bailly about the word’s Latin roots, and also: “Does this word contain the English name Murray, which would be the name of a comedian?”
When asked on Good Morning America what she did to prepare for her win, she explained that she uses a program called SpellPundit and has a tutor, but “mainly when I study, I just study.”
She got serious about spelling two years ago and made it to the third round in the national spelling bee.
“It felt really good to win because I have been working on it for like two years. So to actually win the whole thing was like a dream come true,” she said on CNN’s New Day.