By definition, winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee are exceptional young people. The 2021 champion, Zaila Avant-garde, is no exception. Not only is she the first Black American to win the Bee in its 93-year history, the 14-year-old from Louisiana is also a gifted athlete who holds three Guinness world records for her basketball skills. On top of it all, she's funny.
Avant-garde crushed the competition with the word "murraya," a type of tree. Before she correctly spelled it and won, she cracked a joke about the famous comedian she associated with the word and made even the somber judges chuckle. "I’d like to say thank you to Bill Murray because the reason I knew that word 'murraya' was because of the movie Lost in Translation, which 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," she explained to NPR.
The moment Avant-garde realized she'd won, she twirled and jumped up and down with unbridled joy as confetti cannons went off around her. She held the Scripps trophy over her head and beamed in an an adorably pure moment of triumph.
Amazingly, Avant-garde only started spelling competitively two years ago. Despite her stunning vocabulary, she says basketball is her main focus. "Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish," Avant-garde told the Associated Press. The homeschooled teen then explained what she meant by side thing: "For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so. We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do." No, that doesn't sound overboard at all.
Speaking of her basketball skills, Avant-garde holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling: the most bounce juggles in 1 minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and she tied the record for most basketballs dribbled at once by one person — 6. In 2018, she showcased her skills in a commercial with N.B.A. star Steph Curry. The talented teen aspires to play basketball at Harvard before going off to work at NASA, or perhaps as an NBA coach. She told CNN a career in neuroscience or gene editing is on the table, too.
The list of seriously cool things about Zaila goes on and on. She can also ride a unicycle (while dribbling basketballs). She taught herself how to divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head. Her dad changed her last name from Heard to Avant-garde to honor legendary jazz musician John Coltrane. Asked how she's so good at so many disparate talents, the teen replied, "It’s like asking a millipede how they walk with all those legs."
Listen, I'm pretty sure Avant-garde is going to rule the world one day (or become a basketball star or an astronaut or the president, seriously). She's on the radar of some pretty powerful folks, including First Ladies Jill Biden and Michelle Obama, who both congratulated her on her win. Her Instagram account, @basketballasart, has soared above 30,000 followers. We're sure to see a lot more from this luminescent youngster — and I can't freakin' wait.