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1st African American To Win The Spelling Bee Also Holds 3 Basketball World Records

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, La., celebrates winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World on Thursday.
John Raoux
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, La., celebrates winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World on Thursday.

Updated July 9, 2021 at 9:36 AM ET

For the first time in the Scripps National Spelling Bee's 96-year history, an African American has taken home the top prize.

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, an eighth-grader from Harvey, La., won the prestigious competition — and $50,000. She is the competition's second Black champion.

"It made me feel really proud," she said after clinching the victory. "I'm really hoping lots of little brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it's really a fun thing to do and it's a great way to kind of connect yourself with education, which is super important."

She crushed the competition with the winning word, "murraya," a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees, and celebrated with a twirl onstage under confetti. But not before she got the judges to crack smiles by sneaking in a Bill Murray joke. (We won't explain the joke for you — watch the champ execute it herself.)

The triumph marks the return of the annual competition, which did not happen last year because of the pandemic. Zaila competed in 2019 but didn't make it to the finals.

National spelling champ isn't the only title to her name. Zaila holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball talents: the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and ties the record for most basketballs dribbled at once — six — by one person.

Zaila was among 11 finalists who emerged from a group of 209 contestants, ranging in age from 9 to 15. The competition began virtually in June with preliminaries, followed by quarterfinals and semifinals. The final round Thursday night was held in person at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.

First lady Jill Biden, herself an educator, was there to witness the drama.

Competition this year was fierce, with new rules to raise the bar. Each level had an additional "word meaning" round to test vocabulary. The threat of a "spell-off" loomed over the finalists. Past years ended in ties — a record eight spellers won in 2019 — but this year, a new rule said that spellers who remain at the end of the allotted time have 90 seconds to spell as many words as they can from a predetermined spell-off list of words.

But there was no need for a tiebreaker, to the chagrin of some rapt spectators: Zaila handily outspelled the competition.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The 11 finalists of the Scripps National Spelling Bee sit on stage as the Finals begins Thursday night.
Jim Watson / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
The 11 finalists of the Scripps National Spelling Bee sit onstage as the finals begin Thursday night.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.