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Who is Zaila Avant-garde? 5 things to know about the national spelling bee champion

For most of the 18 rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Zaila Avant-garde went through each word with ease before winning the title and making history on Thursday night.

The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, received the Scripps Cup at the tournament in Florida after correctly spelling “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic or Australian trees.

“Does this word contain the English name Murray, which could be the name of a comedian?” she asked the judges, who chuckled in response. All she needed was the name of origin before rapidly spelling it and winning the bee. 

Avant-garde has undoubtedly turned into a celebrity following the big win, with celebrities and officials nationwide cheering her on. But who was she before she showed the country her breezy spelling skills? Here are five things to know about Avant-garde: 

1. Her win is historic for two reasons

Shortly after confetti rained down on the 14-year-old national champion, the Scripps National Spelling Bee said in a tweet that Thursday’s win was a first for the Pelican State.

But it wasn’t just an historic night for the state of Louisiana. Avant-garde became the first Black American to win the bee.

In the spelling bee’s 96-year history, she’s only the second Black contestant to win after Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won in 1998.

2. Her spelling bee training is intense

As one can imagine, a lot of hard work went into preparing for the national stage. In Avant-garde’s case, a lot means several hours a day.

“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said.

Avant-garde claims that practice routine isn’t going overboard — she has at least 17 more hours to fit in school, basketball and sleep, after all. 

3. She actually has another passion

If you thought she was a spectacular speller, you should see Avant-garde play basketball. 

Her Scripps cup will get to join another impressive feat: owning three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously. 

This prodigy said she “really wants to go somewhere with” the sport, and has noted it’s her dream to attend Harvard, play for the WNBA and maybe even coach an NBA team. 

4. She’s kind of famous

Before she won a national spelling bee and trended on Twitter, all eyes were already on Avant-garde. 

She has 12,000-plus followers on Instagram, with most of her posts about the two things she’s skilled at: basketball and spelling bees. 

Avant-garde was also featured in a commercial with Golden Warriors basketball star Stephen Curry and received a shoutout for her dribbling skills from rapper Michael Franti.

After her spelling bee win, she earned praise from across the internet, including a tweet from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. 

5. She trains with other bee contestants

When it came down to spelling “murraya,” Avant-garde was up against Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, who had just misspelled an essential oil. 

Thummala became the runner-up that evening. The two proficient spellers actually knew each other before the bee.

They share a tutor, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up, and even practiced together virtually for the tournament. 

By Katelyn Umholtz

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