Zaila Avant-garde made history on Thursday night after correctly spelling “Murraya,” becoming the first African-American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 14-year-old Louisiana competitor took home the trophy on live television, standing on top of the stage at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Her winning word, Murraya, helped her score first place at the 93rd Scripps tournament, and now viewers around the world are curious: What does “Murraya” even mean?
The Winning Word: Murraya
The Scripps National Spelling Bee sparked interest in the strange seven-letter word, which is the name of “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees” with “pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals,” according to Merriam-Webster. The scientific term was named after the Swedish botanist, Johan A. Murray, in 1791.
The word describes the subset of trees and shrubs, which are native to Asia and Australia and cultivated in other regions across the globe, with especially fragrant flowers and foliage. Murraya earned Zaila Avant-garde the top spot during the National Spelling Bee after the young girl demonstrated her extraordinary ability to take on the dictionary.
The 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee
The amazing show, which pinned 11 finalists together at Walt Disney World, ended in less than two hours, following an extraordinarily difficult first round that eliminated five competitors at the starting gate. Zaila Avant-garde took home the $50,000 in cash and prizes and has since inspired children around the country. So who is the new spelling bee champ?
The Winner With a Thousand Talents
Zaila, who’s now known for her expert spelling tactics, has more on her toolbelt than most. Besides winning a national title for spelling, Zaila is a basketball prodigy and has three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple basketballs at the same time. More than a dribbler, Zaila is an elite middle school basketball prospect, who hopes to one day earn a spot as a WMBA coach.
Zaila Avant-garde juggles her passion for basketball with her love of spelling, which she spends up to seven hours a day practicing. “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 admitted. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there and walk off.”
She can definitely “go out” and still feel a rushing sense of accomplishment. Zaila’s talents are evident, especially since she didn’t start at a young age, like most spelling champions. Her coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up, admitted that “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. It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?”
According to the 20-year-old Yale student, Zaila “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. 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.”
Zaila was quick to climb the Scripps National Spelling Bee ladder, after only competing in the competition once before, having place 370th in the 2019 bee. Since the 2020 spelling bee was canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions, Zaila had plenty of time to refine her skills and go for the gold.
What’s Next For The Spelling Bee Queen?
Zaila Avant-garde will retire after her historic win, to focus on her passion for athletics. She’s hoping to attend Harvard University “as a basketball player and student,” which she believes will “open doors to maybe being an NBA basketball coach” someday. Besides juggling a spelling bee championship and a career in sports, Zaila is dribbling other mile-high hopes.
“I like working with NASA and doing gene editing,” Zaila added to her laundry list of impressive passions. “I have a lot of different things I’m interested in.”
In a video showing off one of Zaila Avant-garde’s Guinness World Record achievements, the spelling bee champ explained that she had started dribbling at just 5-years-old. More than her history, Zaila is looking to improve on her future and the future of other women around the world.
“I think the more that the achievements and triumphs of women are promoted and publicized, the more likely it is that other girls all around the world will see that they can do any and everything that they put their minds to,” she explained in the video.
There to watch her historic win at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex was First Lady Jill Biden, who cheered on the 11 finalists on Thursday. Zaila’s impressive win also earned her a spotlight in front of the President’s wife, an American educator with a knack for inspiring young women around the world.