Zaila Avant-garde Spells ‘Murraya’ to Make Bee History


The last word, after hundreds of competitors fell to some of the dictionary’s most colorful monsters, was “Murraya.”

When Zaila Avant-garde, 14, spelled it correctly on Thursday night, she put her hands to her head, beamed and twirled her way through confetti and into spelling history, as the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The victory gave an extra polish to Zaila’s already remarkable résumé: Not only has she competed in spelling bees for two years, she already holds three Guinness world records for dribbling, bouncing and juggling basketballs. All before the ninth grade.

“Now I get to get a nice trophy, which is the best part of any win,” she said in an interview on ESPN, which broadcast the contest. (She also won a $50,000 prize.)

That gave Zaila a chance to win it all with one more correct word.

At first, she seemed flummoxed by her word, “Murraya,” grimacing a little. The pronouncer told her it meant a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves with imbricated petals.

“Does this word contain like the English word ‘Murray,’ which would be the name of a comedian?” Zaila asked, referring to the actor, Bill Murray, and drawing laughs from the pronouncer and the judges.

She began to spell it, stopped herself, and asked for the language of origin (Latin from a Swedish name).

Then, as with so many words before, she needed little time to solve its structure. She spelled the word correctly.

Zaila was also the first student from Louisiana to win the bee, and was hailed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans. “Talk about #blackgirlmagic!” she said on Twitter. “We’re all so proud of you!!”

Like many past winners, Zaila attributed her win, in part, to luck of the words she drew. One of the few that rattled her on Thursday was “nepeta,” a genus of herbs. It was a word that Zaila said she had struggled with before.

“I got it this time,” Zaila said after her win.

Zaila, who just finished eighth grade in Harvey, La., showed a prowess for spelling at 10, when her father, who had been watching the national bee, asked her how to spell the winning word: marocain.

Zaila spelled it perfectly. Then, he asked her to spell the winning words going back to 1999. She spelled nearly all of them correctly and was able to tell him the books where she had seen them.

“He was a bit surprised by that,” Zaila said in an interview before the finals.

But she did not start competing until two years ago, when she asked her parents if she could try a regional spelling bee. In the 2019 national tournament, she was tripped up by “vagaries” in the third round.

Zaila, whose father changed her surname from Heard to Avant-garde in homage to the jazz great John Coltrane, has for years found other avenues of success.

A gifted basketball player, she holds three Guinness world records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously (six basketballs for 30 seconds); the most basketball bounces (307 bounces in 30 seconds); and the most bounce juggles in one minute (255 using four basketballs).



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