African American trumps Indian Americans to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the first time in history


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, a 14-year-old from Louisiana, on Thursday became the first African-American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States – breaking the 12-year spell of students of Indian descent winning the competition.

“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.”

A spelling bee is a contest in which participants must spell aloud words announced by a judge. The high-profile Scripps National Spelling Bee is closely followed by students and their parents across the US and the finals are broadcast on prime-time television. This year, the winner got a cash prize of $50,000.

Of the 11 finalists of the Scripps spelling bee held in the ESPN Sports Complex in Florida’s Orlando, Florida, nine were Indian-American.

In the final round, Avant-garde was pitted against Chaitra Thummula from California, who dropped out after being unable to spell “neroli oil” correctly.

Avant-garde scored her victory after spelling the word “Murraya”, a genus of tropical Australian trees.

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

The 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 tie-breaker, to the chagrin of some rapt spectators: Avant-garde handily out spelled the competition.

As it turns out, Avant-garde excels at much more than spelling. She holds three Guinness World Records for her skills in dribbling six basketballs simultaneously, the most basketball bounces and bounce juggles.

The teenager is a champion basketball player and has said that she hopes to compete in the Women’s National Basketball Association when she grows up. Ahead of the spelling bee finals, ESPN shared a video of Avant-garde playing basketball.

Since members of the Indian-American community have been winning the competition since 2008, Avant-garde’s win stood out. There has been only one Black winner of the competition so far, a student from Jamaica in 1998.

Avant-garde – whose father changed her last name from Heard as a mark of respect to jazz musician John Coltrane – said she hoped that more members of the African-American community will be inspired to participate in the competition.

“Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” she said told the Associated Press.

After her victory, Avant-garde said that had taken up competitive spelling only two years ago. “Spelling is really a side thing I do,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”