LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – Whether dribbling a basketball or identifying obscure Latin or Greek roots, Zaila Avantgarde does not show much stress. Now she has become the first African-American winner in Scripps National Spelling Bee’s 96-year history.
The 14-year-old basketball underdog from Harvey, Louisiana, burst into the championship Thursday night. The only previous black winner was also the only champion outside the United States: Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica in 1998.
Zaila said she was fully aware that people were looking at her and dreaming of following in her footsteps.
“I hope over the next few years I can see a small influx of African Americans and not many Hispanics either, so I hope to see them there too,”
The bee has long been a showcase for spelling colors. Nine of the 11 finalists were of South Asian descent, and Zaila’s victory breaks a series with at least one South Asian winner every year since 2008.
Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. She is a basketball standout hoping to play one day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.
Zaila twisted and jumped with excitement after spelling the winning word “murraya”, a genus of tropical Asian and Australian trees.
Only one word gave her real problems, “nepeta”, a genus of old world coins, and she jumped even higher when she got the right one than she did when she took the trophy.
“I have always struggled with that word. I have heard it many times. I do not know there are just some words, because for a spelling I just get them and I can not get them right, ”she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can not have you. ”
Zaila only started spelling in time to qualify for the bee in 2019. But there is not much typical of a basketball prospect whose first choice for college is Harvard and wants to work for NASA if she does not go pro in hangers. Her father, Jawara Spacetime, gave her the surname Avant-garde in tribute to jazz great John Coltrane.
This bee was different from anyone who came before due to the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of last year’s bee. It was moved from its usual location just outside Washington to an ESPN campus in Florida, and only the top 11 players competed in person. Previous rounds were held almost.
Only the closest families of the spells were allowed to participate, unlike the hundreds of fans and former spells who usually pack the bees’ ballroom. However, there was a high-profile fan present: First Lady Jill Biden.
The first lady, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College near the nation’s capital, also attended the bee in 2009. The experienced speaker told the narrators that she was once paralyzed by stage fright.
“In sixth grade, I was my school’s spelling master. I had a chance to go to the next level, but on the day of the regional competition, I told my mother that I was ill, ”said Biden. “The truth was, I was too nervous to go, so I have incredible admiration for each and every one of you.”
The competition itself was hardly recognizable compared to the latest version. In 2019, Scripps’ glossary was no match for the deep and talented field, and the bee ended up with an eight-way tie.
This year, five of the 11 finalists were gone after the first round, and Zaila emerged as the champion in just under two hours. Had the bee reached the two-hour mark, a new lightning round tiebreaker would have determined the winner. The field was perhaps thinner than usual due to the cancellation in 2020, which denied a strong crop of eighth-graders of their best chance of winning and prevented younger spellers from gaining valuable experience.
Zaila takes home more than $ 50,000 in cash and prizes. She used the $ 10,000 prize from an online bee she won last year to pay for lessons with her trainer, 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray, who charges $ 130 an hour – part of a budding private tutoring industry , working with most of the best players.
Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas – another student of Shafer-Ray – was number two. She has two years of retention and instantly becomes one of next year’s favorites.
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