African American spelling bee champion writes history with flair | lifestyle


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida – Zaila Avantgarde understood the importance of what she was doing as she stood on the stage at the Scripps National Spelling Bee pecking spokesman Jacques Bailly with questions about Greek and Latin roots.

Zaila knew she would be the bee’s first African American winner. She knew that black children across the country were watching ESPN2 Thursday night, waiting to be inspired and to follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like her. She even thought of MacNolia Cox, who became the bee’s first black finalist in 1936 and was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the other spellers.

But she never let the moment get too big for her, and when she heard what turned out to be her winning word – “Murraya”, a genus of tropical Asian and Australian trees – she smiled confidently. It was over.

Declared a champion, Zaila jumped and spun in delight, only winced in surprise when confetti was shot onto the stage.

“I was pretty relaxed about Murraya and pretty much every other word I got,” said Zaila.

The sole former black champion was also the sole international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. However, the bee has still been a showcase for color wizards for the past two decades, with children of South Asian descent dominating the competition. Zaila’s win has interrupted a streak of at least one Indian-American champion every year since 2008.

Zaila has other priorities, which may explain why she dominates this year’s bee. The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, is a basketball prodigy who holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls at once and hopes to play in the WNBA or even train in the NBA one day. She described spelling as a sideline, although she practiced regularly for seven hours a day.

“I thought I would never start spelling again, but I’m also glad to make a clear break with it,” said Zaila. “I can go out like my Guinness World Records, just leave it there and walk away.”

Many of the best Scripps spellers start competing in kindergarten. Zaila only started a few years ago after her father, Jawara Spacetime, saw the bee on TV and realized that his daughter’s affinity for complicated math in the head translated well into spelling. She made fast enough progress to make it to the national team in 2019, but was eliminated in the preliminary rounds.

At this point, she took it more seriously and began working with a private trainer, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.

“To be as good as Zaila, you usually have to be well connected in the spelling community. You have to do that for many years, ”said Shafer-Ray. “It was like a mystery like, ‘Is this person real?'”

Shafer-Ray quickly realized that his student had extraordinary gifts.

“She really took a very different approach than any speller I’ve seen. She basically knew the definition of every word we did, almost literally,” he said. “She not only knew the word, but also the story behind the word, why each letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”

Sometimes she knew more than she was admitting. Part of her strategy, she said, was asking about roots that weren’t part of the word she was given just to keep them out of consideration.

Only one word gave her trouble: “Nepeta,” a type of peppermint, and she jumped even higher than she got it right when she did when she took the trophy.

“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it many times. I don’t know, there are only a few words for a speller, I just understand them and I can’t understand them properly,” she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants.

Zaila – her father gave her the surname Avantgarde in homage to the jazz musician John Coltrane – is a unique champion of a most unusual bee, the first in more than 25 months. Last year’s bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and this one has been thoroughly modified to minimize the risk to children and their families.

Most of the bee was held virtually, and only the 11 finalists got to compete in person in a small section of a cavernous arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida, which also hosted the NBA playoff bubble last year. The personal crowd was limited to the Speller’s immediate family, Scripps staff, select media – and First Lady Jill Biden, who spoke to the Spellers and stayed to watch.

Sometimes it was so quiet in the arena that the only sound was the unamplified voice of ESPN presenter Kevin Negandhi speaking into a television microphone.

The format of the bee was also revised after the round of 16 of the 2019 competition. Scripps’ word list hadn’t grown with the best spellers this year, but this year five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first round of the stage. Then came the new fold of this year’s bee: multiple choice vocabulary questions. All six remaining wizards got it right.

Zaila won efficiently enough – the bee was over in less than two hours – that another innovation, a lightning-fast tiebreaker, was not required.

She will take home more than $ 50,000 in cash and prizes. Runner-up was Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and another student of Shafer-Ray. She has two more years to play and immediately becomes one of next year’s favorites. Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, finished third and could be back too.

“Zaila deserved it. She was always better than me,” said Chaitra. “I could repeat a lot more words. I could get a stronger work ethic.”