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Zaila Avant-garde Wins 2021 Scripps Spelling Bee, Becomes First Black American Winner

Zaila Avant-garde
AP Photo/John Raoux

Zaila Avant-garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, becoming the first Black American winner in the competition’s 96-year history.

The 14-year-old from Harvey, La., correctly spelled “murraya” — defined as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals” — to clinch victory.

“Does this word contain the English word murray, which could be the name of a comedian or just an English name in general?” Avant-garde asked the moderators during the competition, referencing actor Bill Murray.

After going 18 rounds and beating out 10 other finalists, she won the ultimate prize of $50,000. In addition to her spelling skills, Avant-garde is a basketball prodigy who aspires to make the 2022 USA Basketball under 16 national team. She set three Guinness World Records for dribbling, bouncing and juggling basketballs, all before entering high school.

Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes were among the politicians and celebrities who congratulated the teen on social media.

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“It was kind of like a rapid succession,” she told espnW. “I couldn’t just stay doing one thing forever so you just keep going and going.”

In another interview with “Good Morning America,” Avant-garde said it felt great to win after two years of training.

“To finally have it, like the best possible outcome, it was really good,” she said.

Avant-garde hopes to see more African Americans doing well in the competition as she believes it’s a gate-opener to being interested in education.”

“I’m hoping that in a few years, I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males, too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee,” she said. You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees, and that’s a bit sad because it’s a gate-opener to being interested in education.”