First African-American spelling champion takes victory

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – Whether she’s dribbling a basketball or identifying obscure Latin or Greek roots, Zaila Vanguard doesn’t show much stress. Now, she has become the first African-American winner in the 96-year history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The 14-year-old basketball prodigy from Harvey, Louisiana qualified for the championship on Thursday night. The only previous black winner was also the only champion outside the United States: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.

Zaila said she was fully aware that people were watching her and dreaming of following in her footsteps.

“I hope in the next few years I can see a small influx of African Americans, and not a lot of Hispanics either, so I hope to see them there too,” she said.

The bee has long been a showcase for color spellings. Nine of the 11 finalists were of South Asian descent, and Zaila’s victory breaks a streak of at least one South Asian winner every year since 2008.

Zaila described spelling as a side hobby, although she regularly practiced seven hours a day. She is a basketball star who hopes to someday play in the WNBA and holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

Zaila whirled around and jumped in excitement after spelling out the winning word “murraya,” a tropical tree genus from Asia and Australia.

One word gave her real problems, “nepeta”, a kind of Old World mints, and she jumped even higher when she got this one than she did when she won. the trophy.

“I’ve always struggled with that word. I have heard it several times. I don’t know, there are just a few words, for a spelling, I just understand them and I can’t understand them correctly, ”she said. “I even knew it was some kind of plant. I know what you are and I can’t have you.

Zaila only started spelling in time to qualify for Bee 2019. But there isn’t much typical about a basketball prospect whose first choice for college is Harvard and who wants to work for NASA if it doesn’t get pro in the hoop. His father, Jawara Spacetime, gave him the surname Avant-garde in homage to the great jazzman John Coltrane.

This bee was different from all previous ones due to the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the bee’s cancellation from last year. It was moved from its usual location just outside Washington to an ESPN campus in Florida, and only the top 11 spellings competed in person. The previous rounds took place virtually.

Only the immediate spellings families were allowed to attend, unlike the hundreds of fans and old spellings that normally fill the Bee Ballroom. There was, however, one high profile fan in attendance: First Lady Jill Biden.

The first lady, an English teacher at Northern Virginia Community College near the nation’s capital, also attended the 2009 bee. The seasoned speaker told spellings she was previously crippled by stage fright.

“In sixth grade, I was the champion of my school’s spelling contest. I was lucky enough to take it to the next level, but on the day of the regional competition I told my mom I was sick, ”Biden said. “The truth was, I was too nervous to go, so I have an incredible admiration for each of you.”

The competition itself was barely recognizable from the more recent version. In 2019, Scripps’ wordlist fell short of the deep and talented realm, and Bee ended in a tie at eight.

This year, five of the 11 finalists were gone after the first round, and Zaila became the champion in just under two hours. If the bee had reached the two hour mark, a new lightning tie breaker would have determined the winner. The field may have been thinner than usual due to the 2020 cancellation, which deprived a strong crop of eighth graders of their best chances of winning and prevented young spellings from gaining experience. precious.

Zaila will win over $ 50,000 in cash and prizes. She used the $ 10,000 prize of an online bee she won last year to pay for classes with her trainer, Cole Shafer-Ray, 2015 Scripps finalist, who charges $ 130 an hour , part of a booming industry of private tutors who spell the best.

Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old girl from Frisco, Texas – another Shafer-Ray student – was a finalist. He has two years of eligibility left and instantly becomes one of the favorites for next year.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols

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