Get to know Zaila Avant-garde: Spelling bee champion and basketball prodigy

Photo: Kottke.org

You’d think that the winner of a spelling bee would be someone shy and soft-spoken, who might be wearing glasses and spends most of her time mastering the intricate corners of a dictionary. Essentially a nerd. 

Well, meet Zaila Avant-garde. She’s a 14-year old from New Orleans, Louisiana who’s a hoop head and aspires to become a professional basketball player. And now, she happens to be the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. 

Just five days ago, she bested over 200 spellers from across the United States and saw off 11 finalists in an event televised by ESPN to become the first African-American in the competition’s 90-year history. She also broke the streak of the champion or co-champion being of South Asian descent since 2008. 

Avant-garde coolly spelled the word “murraya”, a genus of trees from the citrus family – which she associated with comedian Bill Murray – for the win and took home the title, in addition to US$50,000. With her trailblazing win, Avant-garde hopes that more African-Americans participate in the spelling bee, seeing it as “a gate-opener to being interested in education.”

What’s astonishing is that Avant-garde took to competitive spelling just about two years ago (she competed in the 2019 edition and placed 370th). Despite reviewing over 13,000 words a day to quickly build up her vocabulary, she regards it as a hobby. Her true passion: basketball. She currently holds three Guinness Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously and has even appeared in an ad with NBA superstar Stephen Curry. 

Avant-garde shared in an interview with Associated Press, “Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do. Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’oeuvre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”

We may not have seen the last of Avant-garde. She plans to go to Harvard, eventually land in the WNBA (maybe even coach) and even work for NASA. While we eagerly await the day she goes toe-to-toe with Breanna Stewart of Sabrina Ionescu on the court or slinging rockets to orbit, let’s bask in the sheer, unadulterated joy of a girl twirling in confetti knowing she’s achieved the pinnacle of her hobby. 

Follow Zalia Avant-garde on Instagram @basketballasart

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