Zaila Avant-garde Wins Scripps Spelling Bee, Eyes WNBA, NASA Next

By: Melanie P
Posted: July 12, 2021

Last Thursday night the 93rd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee aired on ESPN and it was full of delightful surprises.

It was down to the final two contestants when 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde spelled out “murraya” – a type of tree – to win the championship. She gave a little startled jump as the confetti cannon went off, endearing her to viewers who likely were already charmed by her surprising confidence and humor. 

Zaila Avant-garde is the Bee’s first African American winner and first homeschooled champion. (Jody-Anne Maxwell won in 1998 and was the first Black winner, but she was representing Jamaica.)

You might be thinking, hey… wait a second…spelling isn’t a sport.

First of all, the Bee is broadcast each year on ESPN, which entitles it to some level of sports-ish consideration. According to The Outline, ESPN began broadcasting the Bee back in 1994 and it has enjoyed immense popularity since then. Ashley O’Connor, a representative from ESPN, had this to say: “It’s purely competition, obviously not in the stick-and-ball [way] that ESPN is typically known for, but it is the purest form of competition. It’s fun. It’s pop culture. It’s the best and brightest for the next generation. And quite honestly, it’s fun for all ages.” O’Connor is not the only one who feels this way. Former Scripps CEO Rich Boehne said that “[ESPN was] absolutely the right partner because they know how to package and promote the competition and make it interesting and profile the kids.”

Another reason the sports community should take note of Thursday’s epic event is because of its champion. Not only is the 2021 Scripps Champion a tremendous speller, but Zaila Avant-garde holds three Guinness World Records related to basketball. The precise titles of her records are “Most balls juggled in one minute with four basketballs,” “Most dribbles in 30 seconds with four basketballs,” and “Most basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously.” She earned these records right around the time that she turned 13 and decided to do something unusual to commemorate her entry into the teenage years. 

After winning the Bee, the next challenge on Zaila’s list is to make the 2022 USA Basketball under-16 national team. She is, in fact, one of the top 8th grade ballers in the country, so crushing this latest goal is no doubt within Zaila’s capabilities. 

As for long-term goals, Zaila hopes to someday play basketball for Harvard before launching a career at NASA or as a coach in the NBA. However, she says she’d be interested in playing professional basketball too, either overseas or with the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA. She also mentioned that she might enjoy working in neuroscience or gene editing. Given her incredible performance at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee and her prodigious basketball abilities, I’d say any and all of these options are equally likely to happen. 

For now, Zaila can enjoy her new trophy, the $50,000 cash prize from Scripps, the $2,500 cash and reference library from Merriam-Webster, and the $400 worth of reference books and three-year premium online membership from Encyclopedia Britannica. Oh, and some words of encouragement from her science and sports idols.

For more thoughts and opinions from Melanie, check out her author page.

Photo Credit: Scripps

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