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The last words were rattled off in a rapid spelling duel, with only two finalists on stage, Chaitra Thummala and Zaila Avantgarde.
first was couple tril (Things of little value) that Chaitra, a 12-year-old who just finished sixth grade in San Francisco, got it right. Then save (a chemical specifically isolated from pine tar, rosin oil, and various fossil resins, but usually made from abietic acid) which Zaila got right. And finally Neroli oil (a fragrant pale yellow essential oil, which is obtained mainly from the flowers of the sour orange and is mainly used in Cologne and as a flavor).
What Chaitra did wrong when he swapped the O in “Neroli” for an E.
That gave 14-year-old Zaila a chance to win everything, with one more correct word, that would make her the first black American schoolgirl to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in nearly a century of competitions. She got the floor murraya (A genus of tropical Asian and Australian trees with pinnate leaves and flowers with scaly petals).
Throughout the competition, she seemed to know almost every word and its origin, and smiled every time Jacques A. Bailly, the speaker, posed a new challenge to her. At first she seemed taken aback by Murraya and grimaced a little when Dr. Bailly gave her the floor.
“Does this word contain like the English word murray which would be the name of a comedian?” Zaila asked, referring to the actor Bill Murray, making the speaker and the judges laugh.
She started to spell it, paused and asked for the language of origin.
As with so many words before, it took her almost no time to break down its structure and spell the word.
“That’s right,” said one judge, Mary Brooks, as Zaila held her head in her hands and jumped in the air.
When the confetti burst around her, she jumped back in surprise and then spun around.
“It’s super exciting to win because now I get a nice trophy, which is the best part of every win,” she told an interviewer on ESPN.
Zaila attributed her victory in part to luck. One of the few words that upset her on Thursday was “nepeta,” a unique herb that the New York Times described in 2014 as “intoxicating for cats but relaxing for people.”
“I did it this time,” said Zaila in a television interview after her victory.
Zaila, who has just finished eighth grade in her hometown of Harvey, La., Showed a talent in spelling at 10 when her father, who had watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals on ESPN, asked her how to do that Winner word spelled: Morocco.
Zaila wrote it perfectly. Then he asked her to spell the winning words since 1999. She spelled almost all of them correctly and was able to tell him the books where she had seen them.
“He was a bit surprised by that,” said Zaila in an interview before the final.
But she only started spelling two years ago when she asked her parents if she could take part in the regional spelling bee.
She reached the third round of the 2019 national tournament when she stumbled upon the word “imponderables”.
Zaila, whose father changed her last name from Heard to Avantgarde in homage to the jazz greats John Coltrane, has found other ways of success for years. A talented basketball player, she set three Guinness World Records for the most basketballs at a time (six basketballs for 30 seconds); most basketballs jump (307 jump in 30 seconds); and most bounce juggles in one minute (255 with four basketballs). With her win on Thursday, she also became the first ever winner from Louisiana.
In 2018, she appeared in a Steph Curry commercial that showed off her skills. She also learned how to read quickly, and found that she could divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head, a skill she said is difficult to explain.
“It’s like asking a millipede how he walks with all those legs,” said Zaila, who has three younger brothers.
To win over the bee became her next goal.
When the pandemic forced the Scripps bee’s cancellation in 2020, Zaila signed up for a national online competition hosted by Hexco Academic, a Texas-based organization that trains spellers, and Kaplan Test Prep.
She won, beat 88 other students, and received the grand prize of $ 10,000. Her winning word was “Qashqai”. (A wandering Turkish-speaking people of the Zagros Mountains east of the Bakhtiari.)
“I really like that word,” said Zaila. After her victory, her father jumped on stage to give her a hug.