Spelling Her Way To A Bright Future

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Spelling Her Way To A Bright Future

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Meet a 14-year-old Guinness World Record holder who just added a unique national spelling bee title to her list of growing achievements…

M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.

When 14 year old Zaila Avant-garde heard that word during the final round of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States last week, she immediately thought of the comic film actor Bill Murray.

“The reason I knew the word was because of the movie Lost In Translation,” she told ABC News. “When I was a little kid, I used to listen to the soundtrack, and so that’s how that word was stuck in my head because it was spelled like Bill Murray’s name.”

After she spelled the word, which incidentally means a genus of flowering citrus tree in eastern Asia and Australia, Avant-garde became the first-ever winner from the state of Louisiana. But more importantly, she became the first-ever African-American winner of a spelling bee which has been held since 1925.

Let that sink in for a second. In the near-century that the event has been run for school kids across America, there has never been an African-American winner. Until now. Until Avant-garde spelled the word “murraya”. 

After she won, Avant-garde did a little twirl and knew that the victory was significant.

“To be the first African-American winner is a really big thing to me,” she told ABC News in her high, soft voice. “I was really hoping and definitely a bit surprised that there were no winners, even though there was a woman in the 1930s named MacNolia Cox. She got fifth place in a spelling bee. And due to the segregation, her parents couldn’t even come to the hotel. But my parents could come to my hotel, so I’m really hoping that people go into spelling and education in general.

Avant-garde’s journey to becoming a spelling bee champion started when she was around 10 years old, when her father realized she had a talent for it. In 2019, she was knocked out of the tournament in the third round. But thanks to commercial word lists from a company called “Spell-Pundit” — created by expert spellers — Avant-garde studied up to 13,000 words a day, which usually took her about seven hours.

“I can’t remember all those words, so what I do is I kind of think of it like a mental filing cabinet,” she says. “And there are roots! Roots are parts of words, that when put together forms the whole word. It’s like a building block. I’ve read over 1,000 books at this point, so spelling was like an outcropping, an outgrowth of my love of words.”

For some, winning a national spelling bee tournament might be the kind of achievement to place prominently on a college application. And perhaps Avant-garde will do that. But this 14-year-old has also already starred in a sneaker commercial with NBA basketball player Stephen Curry AND holds three Guinness World Records. She has dribbled the most basketballs at once (six), has made the most basketball bounces (307 in 30 seconds) and has done the most bounce juggling in one minute (255 with four basketballs).

Been there, done that, thinks Avant-garde. The top basketball prospect now has her sights set on bigger goals.

“I’m definitely thinking of playing basketball at Harvard,” she says. “Then there are four options. I’m thinking NBA basketball coach, working with NASA, treating diseases with the help of neuroscience, or, I’ve been looking into gene editing too.”

I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-E.

Playing basketball
The Spelling Bee that she won

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