Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Louisiana, became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday when she correctly spelled Murraya, a genus of plants.
The teen from Harvey jumped and spun with joy as confetti fluttered to the stage at the climactic end to the ESPN2 telecast. She will take home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
The spelling crown is just the latest achievement for the impressive teen, an accomplished hoopster also who holds several Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple basketballs at a time.
Zaila is the first black contestant to win in 93 editions of the contest — which was canceled last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic — since 1998, when Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica became the first winner from outside the US.
Her win also breaks a streak of at least one Indian American champion every year since 2008.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said.
The teen, who hopes to play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA, described spelling as a side hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day.
“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness World Records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”
Unlike most tops Scripps spellers, Zaila entered the field only a few years ago after her dad, Jawara Spacetime, watched the competition on TV and realized his daughter’s mental math skills could translate well to spelling.
She progressed quickly enough to make it to nationals in 2019 but bowed out in the early rounds and began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.
“Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Shafer-Ray said. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’”
He quickly realized the youngster had extraordinary gifts.
“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” Shafer-Ray said.
“She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”
Only one word gave her a bit of trouble: “nepeta,” a genus of mints.
“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right,” she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”
The runner-up was Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and another student of Shafer-Ray. Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, finished third.
With Post wires