2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Zaila Avant-garde (306380)
Credit: Photo by Heather Harvey / Scripps / ESPN Images

“Murraya” was the word that put 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, La. in the history books when she was named the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee Last Thursday.

Avant-garde beat out 209 spellers from five countries at the event that was held in person at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Along with making history, she won a $50,000 cash prize along with an additional $2,500 cash prize from Merriam-Webster.

The word that Avant-garde spelled to win, “Murraya” (pronounced mur-ree-uh), is a genus of flowering plants in the citrus family, Rutaceae found in Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Avant-garde said she’d been preparing for the spelling bee for over two years using tutors and hours of studying spelling around 13,000 words per day. This was her second time participating in the national finals with her first being in 2019. An eighth grader at Clover Lane Homeschool, Avant-garde was sponsored by the New Orleans Chapter of The Links.

“I’m hoping that, in a few years, a few years, I will see a whole lot more African-American females, and males, too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee, because it’s, like, a really good thing, kind of a good gate-opener to being interested in education,” she said in one televised interviewed.

While Avant-garde is the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she isn’t the first Black person to win. In 1998, Jody-Anne Maxwell, representing Jamaica, won the title.

“Zaila demonstrated incredible mastery of the English language with poise and perseverance,” said Adam Symson, president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Company. “The excellence of all of our competitors, their hard work and commitment to learning, and their distinct stories, capture hearts and minds across the globe.”

Spelling isn’t Avant-garde’s only talent. She also holds three Guinness World Records for most basketball bounces in 30 seconds, most bounced balls juggled in one minute, and most basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously. Avant-garde has dreams of one day being in the WNBA.

Since her win at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Avant-garde has received notoriety on social media, getting the attention of Vice President Kamala Harris, former First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. She was also invited to attend ESPN’s ESPY Awards in New York last weekend.

Avant-garde has since been offered full scholarships to several colleges, including Southern University, Louisiana State University, and Louisiana Community and Technical College. However, she has expressed interest in attending Harvard University.