Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, Zaila Avant-garde, Makes History
Zaila Avant-garde knew the significance of becoming the first African American winner of the bee, and it didn’t weigh her down on stage.
word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right,” she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”
Zaila — her dad gave her the last name Avant-garde in tribute to jazz musician John Coltrane — is a singular champion of a most unusual bee, the first in more than 25 months. Last year's bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and this one was thoroughly modified to minimize risk to kids and their families.
Most of the bee was held virtually, and only the 11 finalists got to compete in person, in a small portion of a cavernous arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida that also hosted the NBA playoff bubble last year. The in-person crowd was limited to spellers' immediate family, Scripps staff, selected media — and first lady Jill Biden, who spoke to the spellers and stayed to watch.
Sometimes it was so quiet in the arena that the only sound was the unamplified voice of ESPN host Kevin Negandhi as he spoke into a TV microphone.
The format of the bee, too, underwent an overhaul after the 2019 competition ended in an eight-way tie. Scripps' word list was no match for the top spellers that year, but this year, five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first onstage round. Then came the new wrinkle of this year's bee: multiple-choice vocabulary questions. All six remaining spellers got those right.
Zaila won efficiently enough — the bee was over in less than two hours — that another innovation, a lightning-round tiebreaker, wasn't necessary.
She will take home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes. The runner-up was Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and another student of Shafer-Ray. She has two years of eligibility remaining and instantly becomes one of next year’s favorites. Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, finished third and also could be back.
“Zaila deserved it. She's always been better than me,” Chaitra said. “I could review a lot more words. I could get a stronger work ethic.”