What a ride it’s been for spelling bee champion Zaila Avant-garde
She traveled cross-country, has been on all the morning shows, to Walt Disney World and in parades
A week after spelling her way through formidable words such as rolamite, dysphotic and ancistroid to become the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee and take home a cool $50,000 prize, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde is showing the world what Black Girl Magic is all about. From receiving multiple college scholarship offers to appearances on Good Morning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live! to walking The ESPYS red carpet, the queen bee has been living her best life.
“It feels really good [to receive so much recognition],” Zaila told The Undefeated. “I’m having a lot of fun. I was a bit surprised. I actually can’t quite figure it out. I didn’t think people were too interested in a spelling bee. I was looking at it like, no one compares it to high-action movies. So, yes, I was surprised.”
To prepare for the bee, Zaila practiced spelling for seven hours a day, which she said was made possible by being homeschooled, which keeps her studying six days a week.
“Since I was young, reading and studying words has always been something that I loved,” she said.
Zaila recently spoke with The Undefeated and gave a quick rundown of her very hectic week in the life of a spelling bee champ, which began with a road trip from her home in Harvey, Louisiana, to Orlando, Florida, to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, then to New York City after her win, back to New Orleans, then back to New York, a flight to Los Angeles – “The airplanes some of the times have TVs in them,” she told NPR – before finally returning home for a parade, with lots of online TV guest appearances in between:
Immediately after Zaila won the spelling bee crown, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell was one of the first dignitaries to nationally congratulate her.
The day after her spelling bee win, Zaila was honored with her very own Google Doodle. When people typed “Zaila Avant-garde” while using the Google search engine, a celebration with her winning word “Murraya” was unleashed with a blast of colorful confetti across their screens.
Thank You, Mr. President(s)
Zaila was recognized by former President Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden. Obama congratulated Zaila by tweeting, “Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila – your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you.” Shortly thereafter, Biden chimed in. “Congratulations, Zaila! We’re all so proud of you. I have a feeling this isn’t the last time you’ll be making history.”
After her historic win, Zaila made it known that she was interested in working for NASA one day. The space agency got the message and congratulated her by sending some Twitter love. “The word is ‘star.’ Definition: Zaila Avant-garde. Congratulations on your amazing #SpellingBee win, @BasketballAsArt! We hope you’ll join the NASA family one day!” Astronaut Shane Kimbrough followed, saying, “Congratulations Zaila! We watched you win from the @Space_Station. Hope to see you on orbit one day!” and astronaut Jessica Meir said: “Congratulations to @ScrippsBee champion Zaila Avant-Garde! Super speller, @GWR athlete, and #BillMurray fan – sounds like she’d fit in well with @NASA_Astronauts one day! Hats off to Zaila!”
Less than 24 hours after her big win, Zaila was making the TV morning show rounds, appearing on Good Morning America, the Today show and CBS This Morning. She discussed her excitement following her spelling bee victory and her hopes to see more African American winners soon.
Good Morning America: 14-year-old makes history at 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee
Show Her the Money
Although she has expressed interest in attending Harvard University, the eighth grader already has three full scholarship offers from universities in her home state, with more sure to come. Louisiana Community and Technical College System offered Zaila a scholarship to any of its community and technical colleges, and Louisiana State University and Southern University both took to Twitter to announce their offers.
LSU president William F. Tate IV announced his school’s offer, saying, “Zaila Avant-garde @basketballasart performed at the highest level in the National Spelling Bee. Your academic performance reflected scholarship first! You modeled intellectual excellence. @LSU_Honors awaits. I write to offer you a full scholarship to attend LSU. Here for you!” Southern University president Ray L. Belton followed shortly after, tweeting, “I am pleased to announce that @Southernu_BR is offering #ZailaAvantgarde a full scholarship and ‘#Zaila Day’ at SU, part of the nation’s only #HBCU system. Our student leaders, faculty, and alumni look forward meeting with you. We welcome you to the #JaguarNation! #WeAreSouthern.”
Southern plans to schedule a personalized “Zaila Day” on campus, where she can meet with student leaders, faculty, alumni and more. Asked about all of the offers she has pouring in, Zaila said, “I just know that I really want to go to Harvard, but I haven’t thought about anyone in specific. I just know that’s what I want to do.”
And the ESPY for Louisiana’s New Favorite Athlete goes to …
Zaila made an appearance at The ESPYS, walking the red carpet in a blue gown and yellow headband. “I’m feeling pretty good,” she told the swarm of reporters. “I still can’t quite believe that I won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, so I’m still waiting for that to settle in on me.” ESPYS host and fellow Louisiana native Anthony Mackie gave her a shout-out during the show. “I’m most excited tonight because one of my favorite athletes from New Orleans is in the house,” said Mackie. “Sorry, Drew Brees – you’re old news … I’m talking about the spelling bee champ …” Later, Zaila said that she spent a lot of time talking to U.S. track star Sha’Carri Richardson and basketball player Maya Moore backstage. “I got a picture with Maya Moore!” Zaila exclaimed. “She is one of the people that I look up to in basketball. So, it was really fun being there.”
New York, New York
Four days after making national headlines for her win, Zaila visited The New York Times newsroom.
She’s Going to Disney World!
For Zaila, the spelling never stops … not even at Magic Kingdom. She was featured on the Disney Parks’ TikTok account spelling “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” while standing in front of the famous Disney castle. Along with her pink and gold Minnie Mouse ears, she wore her national spelling bee gold medal and a national spelling bee T-shirt.
Zaila received a special video call from her favorite WNBA player, Dallas Wings guard Moriah Jefferson. “I just wanted to say congratulations on winning the spelling bee,” Jefferson said. “That’s a huge accomplishment. I know myself [I] would’ve been extremely nervous, so I’m super proud of you.” Jefferson then invited Zaila to be her special guest at the Wings vs. Connecticut Sun game on Aug. 15.
‘Live with Kelly and RyaN’
The basketball prodigy was also a special guest on Live with Kelly and Ryan, where she showcased her dribbling skills. She closed out the show by showing why she holds three Guinness World Records, dribbling three basketballs simultaneously.
Murraya for the Win!
Before spelling the winning word Murraya, Zaila asked the spelling bee judges, “Does this word contain the English name ‘Murray,’ which could be the name of a comedian?” She made the connection to actor Bill Murray, reminiscing about listening to the Lost in Translation movie soundtrack as a child. During her appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where she was asked to complete several basketball challenges while spelling “Machiavellian” and “amaryllis,” Zaila was surprised with a special call from Murray himself. Murray was in France for the Cannes Film Festival when he called in to give Zaila another challenge: dribble three basketballs while balancing on a foam roller and spelling the word “portmanteau.”
Murray and the audience cheered her on as she completed the task without breaking a sweat. At the end of the segment, Zaila was offered a full scholarship to the Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California. The facility was launched in 2018 by Kobe Bryant and Sports Academy CEO Chad Faulkner to provide human performance training to “develop athletes to the peak of their potential.”
Don’t Rain On Zaila’s Parade
Finally back at home, Zaila was honored with a Mardi Gras-themed drive-by parade, which included an appearance by traditional New Orleans Zulu Tramps marching on the second line, in her hometown of Harvey. Zaila, her mother Alma Heard, friends and hundreds of fans wearing bee T-shirts gathered at the Woodmere Cafe in Zaila’s hometown to watch a raucous parade of fire engines, police, motorcycles, horses and cars. “I watched her work for this,” Heard said to a throng of reporters after the event. “I watched her do the 13,000 words a day, listen to her music in her own world and when it came through, she worked for this.”
Looking back, Zaila said she can’t put a finger on which part of the past week has been the best. “A lot of stuff is tied,” she said. “Talking to Sha’Carri Richardson and the whole Bill Murray thing that happened and NASA reaching out to me … that all was pretty cool.”