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Zaila Avant-garde Talks About How She Came To Her Spelling Success

Jul 17, 2021
Originally published on July 18, 2021 9:18 pm

Updated July 18, 2021 at 9:18 PM ET

Scripps National Spelling Bee winner Zaila Avant-garde has been busy since her victory on July 8.

Already, the 14-year-old eighth-grader has been celebrated by the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, LeBron James and Bill Murray. She has made rounds on morning talk shows and on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

She was even honored with a parade in her hometown of Harvey, La., on Sunday.

Avant-garde is enjoying the perks of her newfound stardom. So far, one of her favorite moments was meeting track star Sha'Carri Richardson at ESPN's Espy awards.

She's also fond of the traveling it entails. "I really like going on trips and stuff and like being in the airplanes," she tells NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered. "The airplanes some of the times have TVs in them."

Avant-garde has been doing spelling competitions for two years. She came to it from an early appetite for books.

"Since I was a young child, reading and words has always been something that I loved," she says. "Reading books. I've read like over a thousand books. So that's definitely something I've done a lot of. And then my father saw the spelling bee and stuff and asked me some words from them and was surprised at the fact that I could spell some of them."

Capturing the 2021 spelling title is only her latest entry in the history books. Avant-garde holds three basketball-related records in the Guinness Book of World Records: the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and ties of the record for most basketballs dribbled at once.

But she isn't quite sure which of her accomplishments was the hardest to pull off. "I always struggle with answering this question," she says. "I think spelling probably because of the mental acuity that it takes."

And it's that mental acuity that helped her become only the second Black girl to win the contest and the first African American.

"I definitely started thinking about what that might mean after round one," she says. She hopes that her victory inspires African American and Hispanic girls to take up competitive spelling. "It's a really fun thing to do and it's really great for the mind. And just learning how to learn and also learning how to study for school and stuff."

As far Avant-garde, her future could be inspired by two other female award winners, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. "I have some interest since I saw the two women who won the Nobel Prize in connection with CRISPR, I have some interest in gene editing," Avant-garde tells NPR.

She says she's thinking about a variety of options: working at NASA, or perhaps coaching in the NBA or playing in the WNBA. Or maybe exploring her "side interest": neuroscience.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, a young star is spelling her way into the history books.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The word is murraya.

ZAILA AVANT-GARDE: Murraya. Does this word contain, like, the English name Murray, which gives you the name of a comedian - or just an English name in general?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't see that here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bill Murray made the spelling bee.

AVANT-GARDE: Murraya. M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: That is 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. So let us add our congratulations to those already extended by Halle Berry, former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama and, of course, Bill Murray. But you might have heard this isn't her only accomplishment, just the latest. She already has three records in the Guinness Book of World Records for her basketball dribbling skills. We wanted to catch up with Zaila Avant-garde to talk about her success, and she is with us now. Zaila Avant-garde, welcome.

AVANT-GARDE: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: So it's been just over a week since your win. What's the coolest thing to come from this experience so far?

AVANT-GARDE: One of the coolest thing that happened was, like, just traveling around and stuff. I really like going on trips and stuff and like being in the airplanes. It's like the airplanes sometimes had TVs in them, so that was pretty cool. And also, when I went to the Espys, I got to talk to Sha'Carri Richardson, which is super cool to me. There's so many other cool things, but that's just a brief - some of them.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. Just the Espys, sure.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That sounds pretty good. I know - and also, you were on the - Jimmy Kimmel. And your guy, of course, Bill Murray, as I saw, he was cheering you on. So, you know, you've only been competing in spelling for two years. What got you started?

AVANT-GARDE: Basically, since I was a young child, reading and words has, like, always been something that I loved. Reading books - I've read like over a thousand books. So that's definitely something I've done a lot of. And then my father saw the spelling bee and stuff and asked me some words from them. I was surprised that I could spell some of them. And it kind of became an idea there, just kind of, oh, I wonder if you should put her into a spelling bee. And then I asked my 12th birthday for, like, entrance into my local regionals. And I won my regionals and went to Scripps for the first time.

MARTIN: So you kind of got your appetite whetted there.

AVANT-GARDE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Would it be accurate to say you're kind of competitive anyway? I mean, before, as we mentioned, you became spelling bee champion, you already had three Guinness World Records for most balls juggled in one minute, most dribbles in 30 seconds, and most balls dribbled simultaneously by one person, which is six. How did you all come up with - how did that happen?

AVANT-GARDE: The way that happened basically was that like when I was 8 years old, I got the Guinness World Record for my 8th birthday. When I saw it, I, like, wanted to be in that book. And then for my 13th birthday, I asked - try to work towards a Guinness World Record kind of as a celebration of becoming a teenager.

MARTIN: Oh, that's exciting. But of all of your accomplishments so far, which one was the hardest to attain and which one means the most?

AVANT-GARDE: I don't know. I always struggle with answering this question. Sometimes I feel like spelling is the hardest and then sometimes I feel like basketball is the hardest thing I've done.

MARTIN: I hear what you're saying. Go ahead.

AVANT-GARDE: I think spelling probably because of just the mental acuity that it takes.

MARTIN: Spell that for me - acuity. Spell acuity for me.

AVANT-GARDE: Oh, acuity - A-C-U-I-T-Y.

MARTIN: OK, thank you (laughter). You knew I was going to do that at some point, so thank you for indulging me. Now, I've read several interviews with you. And I know that you know you're only the second Black girl to win the contest and the first African American. What does that mean to you? And I realize that's a big question, and it's something that you may or may not have thought about. You know, you're not required to think about stuff like that. So I hope, you know, you understand that that's entirely your choice. But I wondered, what does that mean to you at this point?

AVANT-GARDE: Like, I'm definitely hoping that some girls of, like, African American and Hispanic too, girls who like look at me and maybe think about this because it's a really fun thing to do and it's really great for the mind and just learning how to learn and also learning how to, like, study for, like, school and stuff. So, like, I'm definitely hoping that people look at me and kind of, like, get interested in this type of thing.

AVANT-GARDE: What's the best thing about spelling? Like, what do you - tell me a little bit more about why competitive spelling is a fun thing to do.

AVANT-GARDE: The idea of fun is kind of subjective. I sometimes would, like, bore my parents with my (unintelligible). And I found this new root, and it's going to connect perfectly with this word or something like that, which is like super boring to most people or maybe a lot. Oh, who knows? I don't quite know what's boring to who. But the thing that's super exciting to me about spelling is, like, learning language patterns or just rules and also roots. I just love learning about languages and also kind of like a good segway, I should say, into, like, learning about different, which is something I'm super interested in.

MARTIN: What are you thinking about when you - for future career, for example?

AVANT-GARDE: My main things that I'm interested in is something like working with NASA or maybe being an NBA basketball coach is something I'm really interested in. I also have some side interest in, like, neuroscience, like, treating diseases and stuff or kind of like understanding, for those who have them, the sort of the sources of the problems. And also, I have some interest since I saw the two women who won the Nobel Prize in connection with CRISPR. I have some interest in gene editing.

MARTIN: Something tells me that you're not going to have any difficulty pursuing any of those (laughter). Well, congratulations. Lots of people rooting for you, cheering you on. And I hope that this experience is everything that you dreamed of. That was Zaila Avant-garde, 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, and as we said, Guinness World Record Holder in a number of basketball skills. Zaila Avant-garde, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

AVANT-GARDE: Thank you. I hope to talk to you soon, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.