Zaila Avant-garde wins 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming bee’s first Black champion

Zaila Avant-garde, winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee 2021, on July 8. Photo: courtesy Scripps National Spelling Bee (screenshot)

Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from New Orleans, was named winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday night, becoming the bee’s first Black champion in history.

Avant-garde spelled “Murraya” correctly to win the competition, after conquering words like “retene,” “ancistroid” and “depreter” over multiple rounds. Upon her win, Avant-garde, who is also a talented basketball player, jumped up and down and let out an excited shout as confetti rained down on the stage.

Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Tex., and Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from New York City, came in second and third place, respectively.

The competition marked the bee’s return after the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation last year for the first time since World War II. Signs of the pandemic were still apparent at the event, which was considerably smaller compared to past years: Only 11 finalists traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the final rounds were held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Preliminary rounds, typically held in the days leading up to the spelling bee finals, had instead been held virtually over the last several weeks.

On Thursday night, the finalists – most of them still too young to be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine – wore face masks any time they were not at the microphone and sat in chairs spaced several feet from one another. A limited number of people, mostly nervous family members, were in the audience.

Still, spellers said they were grateful to have an in-person bee once again, which in typical years is as much an opportunity for the spellers to form friendships and community with one another as it is a competition.

“Thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s been – we really needed the spelling bee this year and I’m really thankful for this opportunity,” speller Avani Joshi, a 13-year-old from Illinois, said upon his elimination on the word “gewgaw.”

The competition sped along compared to past years as well. In 2019, eight spellers were named co-champions, after an astounding 20 rounds in which they all spelled their words correctly. By the end of the first round Thursday night, only six spellers remained, and the entire event wrapped up within two hours.

There were plenty of suspenseful moments, including one in which the judges needed to go to the tape to replay speller Roy Seligman’s spelling of the word “ambystoma.” After conferring with other officials, judge Mary Brooks turned to Seligman and reluctantly dinged the bell to indicate he had been eliminated.

First Lady Jill Biden met with the finalists and their families Thursday evening before the competition started, telling them she admired their bravery and confidence.

Biden noted she had been her school’s sixth-grade spelling champion – but chickened out on the day of the regional competition.

“I told my mother that I was sick, because I was too scared to get up in front of everybody,” said Biden, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College

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