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Meet Zaila Avant-garde

You’ll be glad you did

Zaila Avant-garde celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, Louisiana, celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
John Raoux, Associated Press

Overnight, Zaila Avant-Garde has stolen the heart of Americans. The 14-year-old made headlines when she won the 93rd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, reported The New York Times.

  • Avant-garde is much more than a sensational speller, said BBC. She’s a three-time Guinness world record-holder and elite middle school basketball player.

Who is Zaila Avant-garde?

Avant-garde is an eighth grader from New Orleans, Louisiana. For her, spelling bees became a “gate-opener to being interested in education,” per The New York Times. She set her sights on winning the National Spelling Bee after securing her Guinness world records.

How did she win the National Spelling Bee?

Before winning the spelling bee, celebrating under confetti and taking home the $50,000 prize money, Avant-garde had to outspell 208 other contestants, reported CNN. Her words included “querimonious,” “solidungulate,” “Nepeta” and — the winning word — “murraya.”

  • Avant-garde made history as the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, per The New York Times.
  • She is only the second Black winner. The first was Jamaican speller Jody-Anne Maxwell who won in 1998, reported CNN.

“To actually win the whole thing was like a dream come true. I felt like in the moment I snapped out of a surreal dream,” Avant-garde told CNN.

  • Unlike other competitors, she has only competed in spelling bees for the last two years, reported The New York Times.
  • In preparation “for spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she told BBC. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”

What Guinness world records does Avant-garde hold?

Still, to Avant-garde, spelling is just a side hobby. Her main focus and passion is basketball, per CNN.

According to The New York Times, Avant-garde holds three marks recognized by Guinness World Records for her basketball-handling skills:

  • She holds the title for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously — six basketballs dribbled for 30 seconds.
  • She holds the title for the most basketballs bounces — 307 bounces in 30 seconds.
  • She holds the title for the most juggles in a minute — 255 juggles with four basketballs.

Her basketball skills landed her in a 2018 advertisement with basketball star Stephen Curry, said The New York Times.

What will Avant-garde do next?

Avant-garde dreams of playing basketball at Harvard in the future, said CNN. She also dreams of coaching in the NBA. Of course, she also dreams of STEM-related work — like a career at NASA or studying neuroscience or gene-editing.

  • “I’ll find something else to do,” she told CNN. “Trust me.”