Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee after correctly spelling “Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees, to officially capture the title. The 14-year-old was only the second Black winner in the event’s history, and the first Black American winner, as Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica won back in 1998.
What is really remarkable about Zaila’s win is that, unlike many previous winners, she does not see spelling as her primary focus. Most competitive spellers start from a very young age, but Zaila only got into spelling a couple of years ago, and sees it more as a fun hobby she enjoys doing on the side.
Zaila’s main passion is basketball, as she currently holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple basketballs simultaneously. She can even dribble three basketballs while riding a unicycle, as she showcased her talent in a video on Twitter that received over 400,000 views.
“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.”
— Zaila Avant-garde (@Basketballasart) April 17, 2021
Cole Shafer-Ray, a runner-up at the Scripps Spelling Bee in 2015 who now coaches Zaila, said that upon meeting her, he saw her obvious talent and appreciated how unique her approach to spelling was compared to other competitive spellers.
“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,” he 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.”
Zaila’s distinct approach paid off, as she is now the National Spelling Bee champion.