First African American to Win National Spelling Bee Takes Trophy After Just 2 Years’ Practice

E-X-T-R-A-O-R-D-I-N-A-R-Y spells extraordinary, and when you look it up in the dictionary don’t be surprised if you see a picture of Zaila Avant-garde next to the entry.

At 14, Zaila recently became the first African American—and the first from Louisiana—to take home top honors at the 96th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Zaila correctly tackled “retene,” “ancistroid,” and “depreter” in preliminary rounds.

After asking for clarification—“Does this word contain the English name Murray, which could be the name of a comedian?”—she clinched the title by putting the seven letters of the word “murraya” (defined as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals”) in their proper order.

Winning is a grand achievement to be sure, but what makes Zaila’s feat even more remarkable is that she only recently set her sights on spelling tournaments.

In 2019, she tied for 370th place in the Scripps competition. Not bad for her first time out, but Zaila was determined to do better. In short order, the homeschooled teen embarked on a regimen of intensive training that included tutoring and targeted study programs.

“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” Zaila told the Associated Press. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”

Indeed, spelling is only one of this prodigy’s pursuits. In addition to her dictionary prowess, Zaila already has three basketball-related Guinness World Records under her belt, has co-starred in a TV spot with NBA basketball superstar Steph Curry, and has more than 77,000 Instagram followers.

Even with her impressive list of interests, Zaila’s immersive approach to spelling definitely paid off. As footage of her enthusiastic reaction shows, she was overjoyed with the win.

“It felt like really good to become a winner simply because of the fact that I’ve been working on it for like two years and then to finally have it like the best possible outcome was really good,” Zaila told Good Morning America.

Although she’s set her sights on a Harvard degree with possible career paths at NASA or with the NBA, since taking the Scripps title, Zaila has been offered full-ride college scholarships to three Louisiana universities. She also received a congratulatory Twitter shout-out from former president Barack Obama.

Zaila, who is taking her well-earned place in the spotlight in her stride, considers being a positive role model one of the most important aspects of her championship status.

“I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee,” Zaila told AP. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees and that’s a bit sad because it’s a really good thing … and kind of is a gate-opener to be interested in education.”

And—not that we need to spell it out for you—that’s just one of the many things that make this amazing teen absolutely P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L.