Louisiana girl is first African American champ at Scripps National Spelling Bee

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — “Murraya” never smelled sweeter for a Louisiana teen, who became the first African American champion in the history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night.

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Zaila Avant-garde, 14, of Harvey, Louisiana, won the event in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, becoming only the second Black champion in the bee’s 96-year history. The only previous Black winner of the bee was Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won the event in 1998, The Associated Press reported.

The winning word was “murraya,” which is the genus of a fragrant tropical Asiatic and Australian tree, according to The New York Times.

Now you can spell Avant-garde as C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N.

Chaitra Thummala, 12, of San Francisco, was the runner-up, and Bhavana Madini, 13, of New York City, placed third, The Washington Post reported.

Only 11 finalists traveled to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, the newspaper reported. Preliminary rounds were held virtually over the past several weeks.

First lady Jill Biden met with the finalists and their families Thursday evening before the finals began and told them she had been her school’s sixth-grade spelling champion, according to the Post. However, she said she was too scared to attend the regional competition.

“I told my mother that I was sick because I was too scared to get up in front of everybody,” said Biden, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

Avant-garde was never affected by stage fright. In fact, the only bump in her night came when she spelled “nepeta,” a genus of Old World mints, according to the AP.

Avant-garde has been competing in spelling bees since she was 12, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported. She participated in the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee but did not place, and last year’s tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the newspaper reported.

Avant-garde had plenty of bounce in her step after winning and leaping for joy. She should, considering she owns several world records in basketball.

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Avant-garde holds three marks in the Guinness World Records for her basketball prowess, according to the Times-Picayune. She owns records for the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs (255), set last November, and most basketball bounces in 30 seconds (307), also with four basketballs, also set in November. In January 2021, she tied the record for most basketballs dribbled simultaneously by one person, bouncing six at once to share the record with Joseph Odhiambo, of Mesa, Arizona.

She got her first record in 2019 for the most bounce juggles with three basketballs in one minute, finishing with 231.

“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Avant-garde told the AP. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”

Avant-garde said she hopes to become an NBA coach someday or work with NASA, the Times-Picayune reported. She added that she might also pursue neuroscience, a topic she learned about while listening to the NPR podcast “Invisibilia.”

“Don’t listen to anybody who says, ‘Girls shouldn’t do that,’” Avant-garde told the newspaper. “It really rankles me when I hear stuff about how women and girls are restricted, saying, ‘Why would you play basketball? You’re going to get all sweaty. Why do you want to do that?’”

“I just continue to do what I’m doing and hope that maybe people will see me and be like, ‘OK, my daughter can do that, and there’s nothing wrong with it,’” she added. “I just hope people will see me doing it, and be like, ‘OK, it can happen.’”