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Zaila Avant-garde, 14, becomes first Black US student to win Scripps National Spelling Bee

Fourteen-year-old Zaila Avant-garde on Thursday became America’s first Black Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. She spelt out the word “murraya” — a genus of flowering plants — to clinch the title of champion in the 96-year-old contest.

The only other Black winner of the National Spelling Bee was Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica, who won the championship in 1998.

Zaila, from Harvey, Louisiana, told the media she hoped her victory would be followed by greater representation for her and other minority groups in future.

“I’m hoping that within the next few years, I can see a little bit of an influx of African Americans, and not many Hispanic people, either, so I’m hoping to see them there, too,” she said.

Besides her win in the prestigious championship, Zaila has also proved her mettle on the basketball court. She holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

Her Instagram is full of videos and photos of her basketball skills, and she has about 12,000 followers on the platform. Zaila hopes to play in the WNBA at some point and also plans on attending Harvard.

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Her interest in competitive spelling came much later in life when she was 12, she says. She had been training for the competition by prepping for at least seven hours a day. Talking about the long prep hours, she said: “I have some suspicions that maybe it’s a bit less than what some spellers do.”

She told the 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.”

Thursday’s event was attended by a smaller audience than usual, with only family members invited due to the pandemic. Last year the competition was cancelled.

But there was one high-profile figure among those watching: the US first lady, Jill Biden.

This year, the previous rounds leading up to the final were all held virtually. Only the top 11 spellers were able to compete in person.

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Zaila won more than $50,000 in cash and prizes. She was coached by the 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.

AP reported that Zaila’s father, Jawara Spacetime, changed her last name to ‘Avant-garde’ in honour of jazz musician John Coltrane.