If you were just tuning into the Scripps National Spelling Bee last summer, settling in to watch the competition play out, for the first time, during a pandemic, you might not have noticed Zaila Avant-garde as anyone other than Speller 133.
At least not at first.
But as the competition whittled down, Speller 133 remained, buoyant but soft-spoken as she aced each word.
When the only other finalist left standing incorrectly spelled “neroli oil,” Zaila had a chance to win it all. If only she could spell just one more word correctly.
With the word “Murraya”—and a sly reference to comedian Bill Murray—Zaila became the first African-American and first Louisianan to win the bee.
From that moment in July 2021, her world changed. The spelling bee champ transformed into a celebrity, appearing on the front pages of newspapers and in the social media feeds of the country’s best-known athletes, actors and leaders.
That’s when the public learned that the spelling whiz had more than a few skills up her sleeve. She also held three Guinness World Records for the juggling and dribbling she could do with basketballs.
One of the latest stops on her victory tour was in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, for the SXSW EDU conference and festival, where she spoke about reimagining the spelling bee. And she squeezed in some time for the EdSurge Podcast, to talk about what the last year has been like for her, how she trained to become a national bee champion in just two years, and she even spelled a few words for us on the spot.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: So last summer, after you won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, you were featured in major newspapers, invited onto late-night television shows and celebrated all across social media. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect and let the dust settle, what was that like for you? What stands out?
Zaila Avant-garde: I think what stands out most to me is just, I had seen people have these experiences of being in a newspaper. I always dreamed of being the person who’s in the news because I’m a big news junkie actually. So seeing myself in the news, and those types of experiences, were really, really nice … like really motivational, just to see myself in the newspaper after I worked toward a goal.
Is there a newspaper that you were especially excited to see yourself in?
There was a news site, National Public Radio, which it had been my childhood dream to be on the front, the top of it. And a few hours after I won the spelling bee, I logged on just ‘cause I’m a news junkie, like I said, so I was looking at the news and I saw myself at the top of the news. So that was like a dream come true.
What was the coolest part of the whole experience of winning, of being celebrated like that? I mean, you had the former President of the United States congratulating you on Twitter.
The favorite thing that I would hold onto is just the general effect that … I became visible to a lot of young girls who are minorities, and they just saw me.
One of the things I was working toward was being someone who young girls could look at and be like, “Hey, look” as a girl doing something, which of course there are lots of girls doing stuff, but oftentimes is not super publicized. But the spelling bee was a wonderful vehicle for me to become visible to young girls.
Did you get any letters in the mail or emails of girls telling you they had seen you and wanted to be like you?
Oh yeah. I met a lot of girls … many of them hiding behind their parents’ legs, which we’ve all been there. And I’ve gotten a lot of media, girls sending me stuff on Instagram and stuff say how inspiring I am. And it’s really nice ‘cause I was inspired by many people myself and now to be inspiring girls, just like I was inspired, is really cool.
Who are some of the people that you would say inspired you?
I would say that I was inspired by a bunch of people, including Malala Yousafzai, who I actually got to talk to, which is like one of the coolest things. I briefly got to speak to her over Zoom, which is so cool.
I’ve also been inspired by many women, such as the hidden figures, like Katherine Johnson, and all those women who were shattering glass ceilings and kept going beyond that. And they were very motivating to me and really inspired me to go and break that glass ceiling.
Unlike a lot of the students you were competing against in the spelling bee, you had only been training for two years. What made you first start?
From a very young age, I had this love of reading. When I was about 12 years old or so, I wanted to participate in the spelling bee for, like, a birthday present. And so that’s what I did, and that was my first start—participating in my regional spelling bee.
And did you win?
What was it like to train during a pandemic? Do you feel like that helped or hurt your chances at all?
I feel like the whole time I was studying, I kind of had that in the back of my mind. Like while I’m sitting here in my comfortable chair at a computer listening to music, there are people out there who aren’t comfortably sitting in their chair. So I feel like that kind of injected a bit of worry into my mind at all times studying in the pandemic.
But would you say that the pandemic gave you more time to focus on training than you might have had otherwise?
No. I have a unique situation because I’m homeschooled. So there was never a period where I wasn’t doing school, especially as I do school all year round, that was a different schedule. So I do six days a week for six hours a day, all year round.
But what I will say is the pandemic “helped” because there are a lot of virtual spelling bees that there weren’t typically in the previous years. … My family does not have the resources to drop everything and drive up to New York for some spelling bee. So I would say virtual spelling and getting to practice being in the spelling bee situation and that having my winning moments and my losing moments was very helpful for me. So in a way, the pandemic helped me.
The pandemic also impacted the spelling bee itself, since it skipped a year and then only 11 finalists competed in person last summer. How did you feel about that? Did it affect your experience of it at all?
Yeah, I was definitely very crushed, but like in the expectant way. I knew full well the bee was gonna get canceled because of everything that was happening at that time.
I wasn’t even down for too long ‘cause I thought, what about the eighth graders? I was lucky because I was a seventh grader, but I just thought there were some really tip-top eighth graders that year who never had a chance to do their final year, even though that might have been their year.
And so there was that, but for me personally, it was definitely a gut punch. You know, I had been studying really hard. That was my first year where I really went in on studying and I was really, really into it, and putting my whole heart into it. And then it was a little bit sad, very sad actually, when the bee was canceled. But luckily, there were some spelling bees coming up, the virtual bees that I mentioned that kind of took it away. I was able to just be like, OK, I’m gonna be ready for next year.
You must have learned thousands and thousands of words during your training. Do you have a favorite?
I have two favorite words. Qashqai is a word that I spelled to win the Hexco Academic spelling bee, which was very important because I won that bee, and if I hadn’t, I would not have been able to afford to continue my spelling study. So that was very important for me. And of course Murraya, which is my winning word for Scripps. Outside of that, I would say my favorite word is teluk cenderawasih, which is actually a word I got wrong in the Hexco Academic bee.
You have called spelling, for you, the hors d’oeuvres and basketball, the entree. Tell me about that. Why is basketball so important to you?
It’s the first thing I ever did that really stuck with me. So when I was 5 years old, my parents started me on it because I was a really energetic kid. Basketball was a sport that my father had loved when he was a kid. So he was like, “Hey, maybe basketball will be the thing for her.” It stuck with me immediately. I’m a really extroverted person, and I love to hang out with people. So I also love the camaraderie aspect of it.
And you’ve won Guinness World Records for your basketball skills. Can you tell us about those?
Yeah, those aren’t quite my basketball skills. Those are my juggling skills. They started out from the same thing, but they’re a little bit different.
I have two Guinness records now. The third one got broken by a guy, God bless his little heart. I love him. He was actually the person who inspired me to become a juggler, and now he’s come back and beaten my record. That’s very cool for me.
But anyway, [it] kind of developed out of basketball because I was doing like three balls dribbling, three basketballs just for like hand-eye coordination. Like if you could dribble three, you can do one. And so three basketballs was kind of like the beginning. And then I kind of just went off from there up to six basketballs.
So you strike me as maybe a little bit of a competitive person—
A little bit? I’m a very competitive person.
I would say so — you’re a national spelling bee winner and the holder of multiple Guinness world records. Are you gonna try and go back and edge out that guy who beat your third world record?
I have my plans, just don’t tell him. I do have a lot of respect for him because he was the first person who introduced me—who kind of like showed me, you can do this. And so without knowing it, he was kind of my mentor. But eventually you have to outgrow [your] mentor. And that’s what I plan to do. I’m definitely working on a way to try to reclaim my record.
Of all the things you’ve accomplished—and at age 15, there are many—what are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of winning the spelling bee because of the effect of my accomplishment. Because, like I’ve mentioned previously, one of my big motivating things that I wanna do is to be a beacon of light to young girls and minorities. And juggling, playing basketball, wasn’t exactly putting me on the platform for lots of young girls to see, but winning the spelling bee has put me on the platform.
I’m here because of the spelling bee via basketball. I’m not really here because of my Guinness records. So people are hearing my story, maybe being motivated like, “Hey, she can do it. I can do it.” ‘Cause I’m just a typical girl and they’re typical girls. And that’s kind of why I’m most proud of the spelling.