Black Teen Runs Hoops Around Spelling Bee Competitors
An African-American teenager from Louisiana has won the National Spelling Bee, only the second Black competitor to win the prestigious annual contest.
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, jumped and twirled with joy upon being declared the winner after nailing the spelling of “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian citrus trees.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of murraya, and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said.
Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can't afford to pursue it. The only previous Black winner of the bee was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.
"Maybe they don't have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don't have access to that," Zaila said.
Success takes resources
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 U.S. Census Bureau 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 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.
Many top performers at the Scripps National Spelling Bee start competing as young as kindergarten. Zaila started only 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. The 2020 spelling bee was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
“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.”
Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of black jazz musician John Coltrane — is not only a world-class speller.
She excels in basketball, too, having garnered three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously. She hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA. And she’s appeared in a commercial with basketball star Stephen Curry.
She described spelling as a 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.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.
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Iowa star Caitlin Clark became the all-time NCAA Division I scoring leader on Sunday, breaking the late Pete Maravich's 54-year-old record when she made two free throws after a technical foul was called in the No. 6 Hawkeyes' game against No. 2 Ohio State.
Clark entered the game in Iowa City needing 18 points to pass Maravich's total of 3,667, amassed in just 83 games over three seasons at LSU (1967-70).
Maravich's record fell four days after Clark broke Lynette Woodard's major college women's record with 33 points against Minnesota on Wednesday.
Clark's record-setting points Sunday came in improbable fashion. Best-known for her long 3-point shots, she instead went past Maravich after Ohio State was called for a technical foul with less than a second to go in the first half.
Clark swished both free throws to run her career total to 3,668 points; she had no immediate reaction after the second shot went through, as if it hadn't sunk in yet.
Asked in a television interview at halftime if she was aware of the record when she stepped to the line, Clark said, "Not really. When they announced it and everybody screamed, that's when I knew."
Clark got off to a slow start. Her first shot was a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim. She missed a layup and from deep on the right wing before making a 3 from the left side for her first basket.
After starting 2 for 7, she made 3 of her next 4 shots — including three straight 3-pointers, each deeper than the previous.
Woodard was among the attendees at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to help Clark celebrate senior day. Also on hand were basketball great Maya Moore, who was Clark's favorite player, and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.
On Thursday, Clark announced she would enter the 2024 WNBA draft and skip the fifth year of eligibility available to athletes who competed during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Indiana Fever, and the WNBA already is seeing a rise in ticket sales.
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"Listen, this is the greatest ticket on the planet right now," Woodard said in an interview with ESPN before the game. "Hey, I'm going to enjoy this right now."
Clark is all but assured of one or two more appearances at the arena in Iowa City after Sunday. Iowa is projected to be a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament, meaning it would be at home for the first two rounds.
Pearl Moore of Francis Marion owns the overall women's record with 4,061 points from 1975-79 at the small-college level in the AIAW. Moore had 177 points at Anderson Junior College before enrolling at Francis Marion.
Clark was 393 behind Moore as of halftime Sunday, and she has only three to 10 more games left in an Iowa uniform depending on how far the Hawkeyes advance in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
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Maravich's all-time scoring mark is one of the more remarkable in sports history. There was no shot clock or 3-point line in his era. The 3-point line was adopted in 1986.
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Clark has 54 games with at least 30 points, the most of any player in men's or women's college basketball over the last 25 years. She has six triple-doubles this season and 17 in her career.
"What Caitlin's done has been amazing. She's a fantastic player, great for the women's game and basketball in general," Maravich's eldest son, Jaeson, told The Associated Press last week.
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