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Spelling bee champ Zaila Avant-garde talks about historic win, plans for $50K prize money

The 14-year-old talks about making history and her future plans after becoming the first African American champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
/ Source: TODAY

Zaila Avant-garde credits "a lot of hard work" and "a bit of luck" for helping her make history by becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night.

The 14-year-old spelling prodigy spoke with Craig Melvin and Sheinelle Jones on TODAY Friday after beating out a field of 208 contestants to also become the first winner ever from Louisiana. The win adds to an amazing resume that includes three Guinness world records for juggling and dribbling multiple basketballs simultaneously.

She now has the enviable task of figuring out what to do with the $50,000 in cash and prizes after defeating runner-up Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas.

"Well, when I won $10,000 for another spelling bee, I said I was going to stick it under the floorboards for security, but the $50,000, that would be a lot of dollars and I don't think my floorboards could fit it, so I don't know," she said with a smile.

Image: 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, holds up her trophy after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Joe Skipper / Reuters

Zaila, who was given her last name by her father as a tribute to jazz legend John Coltrane, rocketed from 370th place in the 2019 spelling bee to take the top spot this year.

She twirled in celebration after correctly spelling "Murraya," a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees, to bring home the title at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida.

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The teen prodigy became just the second Black winner in the bee's history after Jamaica's Jody-Anne Maxwell in 1998 and halted a stretch of dominance by Indian American contestants, who had at least one winner every year since 2008.

She credited her work with coach Cole Shafer-Ray, 20, a Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up, as well as former third-place finisher Snehaa Ganesh Kumar and Kumar's mother, Vijaya.

Image: 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals
Zaila is the first African American winner in the 93-year history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Joe Skipper / Reuters

Her father, Jawara Spacetime, has also been a driving force for her.

"My family thinks it's like really cool and stuff, especially my father," she said. "He's like really happy because it was kind of his idea to put me in spelling, so he's kind of like the main impetus behind it, but my whole family is like super excited."

The eighth-grader goes out on top as she will be too old by rule to defend her title next year.

"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,” she told reporters after her victory. “I can go out, like my Guinness World Records, just leave it right there, and walk off."

She now has big plans for her future.

"Going to Harvard to play basketball, then maybe going to the WNBA or overseas or something before I go into my next thing of working at NASA or something like that, being a basketball coach," she said on TODAY.