LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Whether dribbling a basketball or identifying obscure Latin or Greek roots, Zaila Avant-garde doesn’t show much stress.
The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, breezed to the championship at the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, becoming the first African American winner and only the second Black champion in the bee’s 96-year history.
Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.
Zaila twirled and leaped with excitement after spelling the winning word, “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.
Only one word gave her any real trouble, “nepeta,” a genus of Old World mints, and she jumped even higher when she got that one right than she did when she took the trophy.
Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, was runner-up. Both Zaila and Chaitra are coached by Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up.
The only previous Black winner of the bee was Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. Zaila also breaks a streak dating back to 2008 during which at least one champion or co-champion was of South Asian descent.
She has more than 12,000 Instagram followers — where videos of her dazzling skills have won praise from musician Michael Franti, among others — and she hopes to attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and possibly coach one day in the NBA, if she doesn’t go to work for NASA.
Competitive spelling came relatively late in life, starting at age 12.
“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”
Don’t be mistaken: Zaila brings the same competitive fire to spelling that she shows on court. She won last year’s Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee — one of several bees that emerged during the pandemic after Scripps canceled last year — and used the $10,000 first prize to pay for study materials and $130-an-hour sessions with a private tutor, 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.
The time commitment required to master roots, language patterns and definitions is what keeps many top spellers from seriously pursuing sports or other activities. But Zaila, who is home-schooled, claims to have it figured out.
“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”
Seven hours a day isn’t going overboard?
“I have my suspicions. I don’t know. I have some suspicions that maybe it’s a bit less than what some spellers do,” she said.
Whether all that preparation leads to a trophy and $50,000 in cash and prizes will be determined Thursday night when Zaila faces 10 other spellers for the only in-person portion of this year’s pandemic-altered bee. Normally staged at a convention center outside Washington, the bee was moved to an ESPN campus in Florida, with attendance strictly limited and masking and distancing protocols in place.
“This is an entirely different experience. The structure of the bee is different, the location is different, so I’m really excited to see what this bee has in store,” said 14-year-old Ashrita Gandhari of Ashburn, Virginia, competing for the fourth time.
Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of jazz musician John Coltrane — would chart a new career path for spellers if her hoop dreams come true. Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African-Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can’t afford to pursue it.
“Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” Zaila said. “With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates.”