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Zaila Avantgarde conjures up “Murraya” to write bee history


The last word after hundreds of competitors slammed some of the dictionary’s most colorful monsters was “Murraya”.

When 14-year-old Zaila Avantgarde spelled it correctly on Thursday evening, she put her hands to her head, beaming and swirling through confetti and spelling history as the first black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The victory gave Zaila’s already remarkable résumé an additional polish: She has not only taken part in spelling competitions for two years, but already holds three Guinness world records in dribbling, hopping and juggling with basketballs. Everything before the ninth grade.

“Now I get a nice trophy, which is the best part of any win,” she said in an interview on ESPN that aired the competition. (She also won a $ 50,000 award.)

She told the story on Friday morning “Good morning america” that she hoped to see more African American students in a few years “do well on the Scripps Spelling Bee.”

The bee is a “gate opener to interest in education”.

Zaila’s journey from her hometown near New Orleans to the Spelling Bee finals in Orlando, Florida spanned two years, 18 rounds of competition, and tens of thousands of words that she pored over with her father.

On Thursday night, she faced not only a number of obscure words – including Fidibus, Ancistroid, and Depreter – but also new spelling rules for bees after eight students were crowned co-champions in 2019. (The bee was canceled last year due to pandemic concerns.)

The national spelling bee has been practiced for nearly 100 years, and its organizers have made the words increasingly difficult over decades, panning across medicine, art, zoology, and antiquity. But the students have consistently aligned them.

The organizers of the bees imposed new rules this year, including a live vocabulary round in which they said they wanted to challenge the skills of typists who could exhaust their list of challenging words and survive a four-hour marathon like the one in 2019.

This year’s words were particularly difficult, said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and author of Word for Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

“I opened the dictionary in front of me and I edited this dictionary and I didn’t spell any of those words on the first try,” she said Thursday evening.

And it wasn’t long before most of the 11 finalists stumbled. Words that foiled the sprites included Chrysal, Athanor, Cloxacillin, Heliconius, Torticollis, Platylepadid, and Gewgaw.

Several spellers were eliminated in a round of word meaning questions, which Ms. Stamper said represented a return to the origins of the spelling bees as a broader vocabulary exercise. “It wasn’t this playful thing we’re doing now,” she said.

In the final minutes of the competition, two girls, Zaila and Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from San Francisco, came into play.

The last few words came off in a quick back-and-forth between them and the speaker.

First was “Fewtrils” (Things of little value) what Chaitra did right. Then “retene” (a chemical specifically isolated from pine tar, rosin oil, and various fossil resins) Zaila spelled correctly.

And finally “neroli oil” (a fragrant pale yellow essential oil). Chaitra misunderstood this and exchanged the O in “Neroli” for an E.

That gave Zaila the chance to win everything with one more correct word.

At first she seemed confused by her word “Murraya” and grimaced a little. The spokesman told her that it was a genus of tropical Asian and Australian trees with pinnate leaves with scaly petals.

“Does that word, like the English word ‘Murray’, contain what the name of a comedian would be?” Zaila asked, referring to actor Bill Murray, making the speaker and the judges laugh.

She started spelling it, stopped and asked for the language of origin (Latin from a Swedish name).

Then, as with so many words before, it took little time to solve its structure. She spelled the word correctly.

Unlike some other competitors who have trained for years and treated the spelling bees like a family business, Zaila had only competed for two years.

Her victory was celebrated on social media by people like the first lady, Jill Biden, who visited the bee, former President Barack Obama and Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The first black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica who won the bee in 1998.)

Zaila was also the first Louisiana student to win the bee and was hailed by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “Talk about it #blackgirlmagic! ” you said on twitter. “We’re all so proud of you !!”

Like many previous winners, Zaila attributed her victory in part to the luck of the words she drew. One of the few that upset her on Thursday was “Nepeta,” a genus of herbs. It was a word that, as Zaila said, she had struggled before.

“I did it this time,” said Zaila after her victory.

Zaila, who has just finished eighth grade in Harvey, La., Showed her spelling skills at 10 when her father, who had been watching the national bee, asked her how to spell the winning word: marocaine.

Zaila wrote it perfectly. Then he asked her to spell the 1999 winning words. 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.

However, she only entered competitions two years ago when she asked her parents if she could try a regional spelling bee. At the national tournament in 2019 she was tripped by “camps” in the third round.

Zaila, whose father changed her surname 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 holds three Guinness World Records for the most basketballs dribbled at the same time (six basketballs for 30 seconds); most basketball jumps (307 jumps in 30 seconds); and most bounce juggles in one minute (255 with four basketballs).

In 2018, she appeared in a commercial showing off her skills alongside NBA star Stephen Curry. She’s also learned how to divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head, a skill that is difficult for her to explain.

“It’s like asking a millipede how he walks with all those legs,” said Zaila, who has three younger brothers.

Her next goal was to win over the bee.

Maggie Astor and Derrick Bryson Taylor Reporting contributed.



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