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African American spelling bee champ makes history with flair

African American spelling bee champ makes history with flair

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Zaila Avant-garde understood the significance of what she was doing as she stood on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage, peppering pronouncer Jacques Bailly with questions about Greek and Latin roots.Zaila knew she would be the first African American winner of the bee. She knew Black kids around the country were watching Thursday night’s ESPN2 telecast, waiting to be inspired and hoping to follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them. She even thought of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first Black finalist at the bee and wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers.But she never let the moment become too big for her, and when she heard what turned out to be her winning word — “Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees — she beamed with confidence. It was over.Declared the champion, Zaila jumped and twirled with joy, only flinching in surprise when confetti was shot onto the stage.“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said.The only previous Black champion was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. The bee, however, has still been a showcase for spellers of color over the past two decades, with kids of South Asian descent dominating the competition. Zaila’s win breaks a streak of at least one Indian-American champion every year since 2008.Zaila has other priorities, which perhaps explains how she came to dominate this year’s bee. The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, is a basketball prodigy who owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously and hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA. She described spelling as a side hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day.“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”Many of top Scripps spellers start competing as young as kindergarten. Zaila only started a few years ago, after her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the bee on TV and realized his daughter’s affinity for doing complicated math in her head could translate well to spelling. She progressed quickly enough to make it to nationals in 2019 but bowed out in the preliminary rounds.That’s when she started to take it more seriously and began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.“Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Shafer-Ray said. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’”Shafer-Ray quickly realized his pupil had extraordinary gifts.“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” he said. “She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”Sometimes she knew more than she let on. Part of her strategy, she said, was to ask about roots that weren’t part of the word she was given, just to eliminate them from consideration.Only one word gave her trouble: “nepeta,” a genus of mints, and she jumped even higher when she got that one right than she did when she took the trophy.“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.”Zaila — her dad gave her the last name Avant-garde in tribute to jazz musician John Coltrane — is a singular champion of a most unusual bee, the first in more than 25 months. Last year’s bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and this one was thoroughly modified to minimize risk to kids 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 in Florida 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.The format of the bee, too, underwent an overhaul after the 2019 competition ended in an eight-way tie. Scripps’ word list was no match for the top spellers that year, but this year, five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first onstage round. Then came the new wrinkle of this year’s bee: multiple-choice vocabulary questions. All six remaining spellers got those right.Zaila won efficiently enough — the bee was over in less than two hours — that another innovation, a lightning-round tiebreaker, wasn’t necessary.She will take home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes. The runner-up was Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and another student of Shafer-Ray. She has two years of eligibility remaining and instantly becomes one of next year’s favorites. Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, finished third and also could be back.“Zaila deserved it. She’s always been better than me,” Chaitra said. “I could review a lot more words. I could get a stronger work ethic.”———Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols

First lady congratulates National Spelling Bee finalists

First lady congratulates National Spelling Bee finalists

Finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee have received a visit from one of the nation’s most prominent educatorsBy BEN NUCKOLS Associated PressJuly 8, 2021, 11:50 PM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleLAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee got a visit from one of the nation’s most prominent educators: first lady Jill Biden.The first lady met with spellers and their families before the bee Thursday evening and made brief remarks onstage. She planned to stay and watch the competition.“I wanted to be here personally to tell you that the president and I are so proud of all that you’ve accomplished,” Biden said.This year’s bee was delayed because of the pandemic and all preliminary rounds were held virtually. Only the 11 finalists are competing in person, at an ESPN campus near Walt Disney World in Florida. The finals will be televised on ESPN2.Biden previously attended the bee in 2009 in Washington. She is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, where she also worked during the eight years that President Joe Biden was vice president, and she has her own history in competitive spelling.“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.”The first lady has kept a busy schedule, traveling around the country to promote her husband’s policies and her own issues and causes.———Follow Ben Nuckols at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols

National Spelling Bee win could be footnote to hoops career

National Spelling Bee win could be footnote to hoops career

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The biographical blurbs about competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee include a litany of other interests, from sports to musical instruments to science competitions to Indian classical dance.Scripps’ motivation for sharing those hobbies and passions is clear: It sends the message that the spellers are normal kids, not robotic middle-schoolers with a monomaniacal devotion to memorizing the dictionary.But even among the more well-rounded spellers who will compete Thursday in the ESPN-televised national finals, Zaila Avant-garde stands out.The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, has earned more recognition for her athletic prowess than her achievements in spelling. She is a basketball prodigy who has appeared in a commercial with Stephen Curry and owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.She has more than 12,000 Instagram followers — where videos of her dazzling skills have won praise from musician Michael Franti, among others — and she hopes to attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and possibly coach one day in the NBA, if she doesn’t go to work for NASA.Competitive spelling came relatively late in life, starting at age 12.“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”Don’t be mistaken: Zaila brings the same competitive fire to spelling that she shows on court. She won last year’s Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee — one of several bees that emerged during the pandemic after Scripps canceled last year — and used the $10,000 first prize to pay for study materials and $130-an-hour sessions with a private tutor, 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.The time commitment required to master roots, language patterns and definitions is what keeps many top spellers from seriously pursuing sports or other activities. But Zaila, who is home-schooled, claims to have it figured out.“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”Seven hours a day isn’t going overboard?“I have my suspicions. I don’t know. I have some suspicions that maybe it’s a bit less than what some spellers do,” she said.Whether all that preparation leads to a trophy and $50,000 in cash and prizes will be determined Thursday night when Zaila faces 10 other spellers for the only in-person portion of this year’s pandemic-altered bee. Normally staged at a convention center outside Washington, the bee was moved to an ESPN campus in Florida, with attendance strictly limited and masking and distancing protocols in place.“This is an entirely different experience. The structure of the bee is different, the location is different, so I’m really excited to see what this bee has in store,” said 14-year-old Ashrita Gandhari of Ashburn, Virginia, competing for the fourth time.Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of jazz musician John Coltrane — would chart a new career path for spellers if her hoop dreams come true. She could also make spelling history of a different sort, by becoming the first Black American champion. The only previous Black winner of the bee was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African-Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can’t afford to pursue it.“Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” Zaila said. “With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates.”The bee has been rightly celebrated as a showcase for students of color — a speller of South Asian descent has been the champion or co-champion of every bee since 2008 — but Zaila is not the first speller to point out issues with economic diversity.Indian-Americans are the wealthiest U.S. ethnic group, according to Census data, and Indian professionals who immigrate to the U.S. have access to a network of bees and other academic competitions targeting their community.J. Michael Durnil, the bee’s new executive director, said he hopes to make more resources available to spellers who can’t access elite-level training.“It’s really important to me that a student anywhere in the country or a parent or a sponsor watches the bee on (Thursday) and says, ‘I see myself there, I want to be there and there is a clear pathway to try to get there,’” Durnil said.———Follow Ben Nuckols at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols