The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Zaila Avant-garde was born in 2007, in Harvey, Louisiana, to Alma Heard and Jawara Spacetime. Her father gave her the last name Avant-garde in tribute to his favorite album by musician John Coltrane of the same name. Avante-garde is homeschooled by her parents, along with her three brothers. She began to practice dribbling a basketball when she was five and became interested in achieving a World Record when given a Guinness Book for her eighth birthday.
By the age of thirteen, Avant-garde was awarded her first world record for the “Most Bounces in one minute with three basketballs.” Her second world record is for the “Most Bounce Juggles in one minute with four basketballs.” and her third world record is for the “Most Basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously.” Avante-garde also rides a unicycle among her many talents. In 2018, Avant-garde was featured in an Under Armor commercial alongside NBA star Steph Curry, and has performed alongside basketball legends, The Harlem Globetrotters. In middle school, Avant-garde played basketball for the Lady Eagles, and the New Orleans Metro League, and celebrated reading one thousand chapters in books in her seventh-grade year.
Most youth who aspire to enter spelling bees begin training as early as three years old. Avante-garde only began her training a few years ago and has participated in few traditional spelling bees in the past. Her trainer, 20-year-old Yale University student, Cole Shafer-Ray, is the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee runner up. In the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Avant-garde tied for 370th place out of 600 spellers. She also participated in the 2020 Kaplan University Online Spelling Bee, and after six days, eighteen hours, and thirty-one rounds, with over five hundred and four words, Avant-garde won her first professional championship, which came with a trophy and a $10,000 cash award.
On July 8, 2021, Avant-garde became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the 96-year history of the event. The win comes with a trophy and over $50,000 in cash and prizes. Avant-garde won the championship with the word “murraya”- defined as a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees, having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricate petals.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925. In 1936, 13-year-old MacNolia Cox and Elizabeth Kenny were the first black competitors of the competition. They were unable to travel with competitors in the whites-only train car or stay in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. as the rest of the spellers due to the segregation of the era. Cox made it to the final five competitors. The only previous black person to win the spelling bee was 12-year-old Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. Avante-garde has over 36,000 followers on her Instagram page (@basketballasart) and aspires to be an Archaeologist, a WNBA player, and to work with NASA.