National Spelling Bee champ is also a three-time Guinness world record holder

AP Photo/John Raoux

A fourteen-year-old teenager from Louisiana won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Zaila Avant-garde became the first black winner of the annual spelling bee and the first winner ever from Louisiana. At the end of a long week, her story is a welcome palate cleanser.


Jill Biden was in attendance as the First English Teacher and spoke to the finalists before the competition began. She delivered a weird kind of personal anecdote, though. She was a guest of the spelling bee and traveled to Orlando from her trip to Georgia the day before where she was stumping with Senator Warnock and encouraging Georgians to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

‘In sixth grade, I was my school’s spelling bee champion. I had a chance to go to the next level, but on the day of the regional competition, I told my mother that I was sick,’ she told the spellers.

‘The truth was that I was too nervous to go, so I have incredible admiration for each and every one of you.’

Did she just want to tell the kids that she was a good speller, too? We know she’s all about competing for the spotlight but good heavens, couldn’t she have come up with something better than the fact that she chickened out at the last minute? The Bidens are weird. She could have left that part off. The reporting on Jill’s participation at the event includes the fact that she wore the designer dress made famous on her Vogue cover photo – the one everyone says looks like a sofa’s upholstery. I appreciate that she wears clothing more than once, as we all do, but maybe that dress could be put in the back of the closet.

Zaila Avant-garde’s reaction upon being declared the winner of the spelling bee is priceless. She jumps around and her face is beaming with sheer joy. She doesn’t hold back and it’s wonderful to watch.


Several big Twitter accounts provided the clip from when she won, including this one from ESPN. Others who shared the clip in their congratulatory tweets include Oprah and Michelle Obama.

Why ESPN, you may ask? It turns out that the young lady is talented with a basketball. Spelling, she says, is her side hobby.

Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

During one television interview this morning when she was asked what her plans for the future might be, Zaila said she’d like to be an NBA coach so her goal has upgraded from simply being a WNBA player. She also mentioned NASA, and scientific endeavors so she is certainly interested in many areas. She appeared in a commercial with Stephen Curry three years ago. The winning word was ‘murraya,’ a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees. The only word that gave her trouble was “nepeta,” a genus of mints.

I’ve always struggled with that 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.”


Her last name is unusual and that is because her father named her in tribute to jazz musician John Coltrane. Her father’s name is Jwara Spacetime, so there’s that. She seems to have her head on straight. She plans to retire from spelling competitions now so she can go out on top. In 2019, the last spelling bee before this year’s due to the pandemic, she tied for 370th place.

This year’s competition was different that those in the past because of COVID-19. Last year’s spelling bee was canceled. This year’s bee was modified to minimize risk to the competitors 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 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.

An exception to the people allowed to watch the competition in person was made for Jill Biden. I wonder if the Japanese will extend her the same courtesy when the Tokyo Olympics begin? She was hyped in the media as the official representative of the Biden administration going to Tokyo and she would even meet with Japanese officials in a diplomatic capacity.


Congratulations poured in for Zaila in recognition of her historic win, both for ethnicity and her home state. That was to be expected.

Congrats to Zaila. She seems to be an interesting young lady with big ambitions.

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