Zaila Avant-garde, the First African American Spelling Bee Champ, is the Coolest 14-Year-Old on the Planet

Dimas Sanfiorenzo

Dimas Sanfiorenzo is the Managing Editor for Okayplayer. He specializes…

Zaila Avant gardeZaila Avant garde

Photo Credit: Jim Watson/ Pool/ AFP

The Internet fell in love with Zaila Avant-garde after she became the first African American Spelling Bee Champion.


This was the word that 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde spelled out to win the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee. Zaila, who is in the eighth grade and is from Harvey, Louisiana, spelled Murraya — “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees,” according to Merriam-Webster — with ease, doing a full twirl on stage as the confetti started to fall. With that word, she became the first Black American spelling bee champion in history, beating out hundreds of students from around the world.

And she became an Internet star almost overnight.

After her win, there were thousands of Zaila tweets, even getting a shout out from former PLOTUS Michelle Obama.

There’s a couple of things that make Zaila the coolest 14-year-old on the planet right now. Let’s start with the fact that her father changed her surname from Heard to Avant-garde as a way to pay homage to legendary jazz musician John Coltrane. Or, how about the fact that Zaila just started competitive spelling in 2019. And let’s not forget that this isn’t even the most impressive thing on Zaila’s resume. It turns out Zaila is a star basketball player who holds three Guinness World Records, for the following:

– Most balls juggled in one minute with four basketball

– Most dribbles in 30 seconds with four basketballs

– Most basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously — six

Zaila is a baller for real. Before her big spelling bee win, she had already appeared in a Steph Curry commercial and built a legit following for her skills on the court.

In an interview with the Associated Press, she talked about her athletic dreams. It’s clear she wants to go pro.

“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do… Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’oeuvre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”

After her big win, Zaila appeared on Good Morning America and spoke about her win and what it was like taking home the Scripps Cup and the $50,000 prize. During her time on the show she stressed wanting to see more African Americans do well in the contest.

“I’m hoping that in a few years… I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee.”

It should be noted that while Zaila is the first African American to win the spelling she’s not the first Black student. In 1998, Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, won.