Washington: A black teen became the first African-American to win the US National Spelling Bee title, marking a milestone for the community, and in the process, loosening the grip Indian-American kids exercised over the championship for the past two decades. Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Louisiana, correctly spelled the word murraya - a type of tree - to clinch the trophy beating Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old sixth grader from San Francisco and nine other finalists, all but one of Indian-origin. Chaitra slipped on neroli oil (a fragrant pale yellow essential oil).
Zaila will receive a $50,000 cash prize and a host of scholarships, praise, and headlines that accompany an event that has now become an American TV staple. First lady Jill Biden, an English professor, was among those who dropped by at the event, which resumed this year after being cancelled in 20-20 for the first time in its 96-year history due to the pandemic.
Zaila’s win evoked comparison to Arthur Ashe winning the Wimbledon championship in 1968 to ignite black interest in tennis. “I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African-American females, and males too, doing well in Scripps Spelling Bee,” she told Good Morning America.
Zaila’s interests go beyond spellings. She holds three Guinness world records - for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously (6 basketballs for 30 seconds); the most basketball bounces (307 bounces in 30 seconds); and the most bounce juggles in one minute (255 using four basketballs).
Zaila is the first African-American and only the second black contestant to win after Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won in 1998.