Spelling bee: Zaila Avant-garde becomes first African American to win Scripps contest

The Louisiana teenager also holds three Guinness World Records for ball dribbling

Zaila Avante-garde, 14, from New Orleans, Louisiana, secured victory at America's Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday after correctly spelling "murraya", a genus of trees.

With her triumph, she became the first African American to win the spelling bee in its more than 90-year history.

The only other black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell, who represented Jamaica in 1998.

Other words Zaila had to navigate included "querimonious" (complaining), "solidungulate" (having a single hoof on each foot) and "retene" (a chemical isolated).

While she breezed her way through the final, spelling is only a side hobby for the talented teenager, as she's also something of a basketball prodigy, who holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling numerous balls simultaneously.

In 2019, on her 13th birthday, she bounce juggled three basketballs 231 times in one minute, beating the world record by 18. She began practising dribbling at age 5.

"I hope to one day make it all the way to the WNBA," she said at the time. "Dribbling is just one part of my overall basketball skillset."

On Instagram, where her following has jumped overnight, Zaila shares her basketball and spelling journeys.

Zaila leapt with excitement and twirled amid a sea of confetti after spelling the winning word. The only one she stumbled on in the whole set was "nepeta", another botanical word for a type of flowering plants.

The prize is $50,000.

Chaitra Thummala, 12, from Frisco, Texas, was runner-up.

It's about more than just spelling and basketball for Zaila, though. Her motivation comes from a place far more poignant: "I think the more that the achievements and triumphs of women are promoted and publicised, the more likely it is that other girls all around the world will see that they can do any and everything that they put their minds to," she said in a video posted to the official Guinness World Records Twitter page.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee competition, which was cancelled last year because of the pandemic, took place this year at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

It started with 209 spellers, ranging from 9 to 15 years old, with only 11 making it to Thursday night's final. Contestants hailed from five countries: the US, the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana and Japan.

First lady Dr Jill Biden was present to cheer Zaila and the other contestants on.

Updated: July 9th 2021, 6:29 AM
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