LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The biographical blurbs about competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee include a litany of other interests, from sports to musical instruments to science competitions to Indian classical dance.
Scripps' motivation for sharing those hobbies and passions is clear: It sends the message that the spellers are normal kids, not robotic middle-schoolers with a monomaniacal devotion to memorizing the dictionary.
But even among the more well-rounded spellers who will compete Thursday in the ESPN-televised national finals, Zaila Avant-garde stands out.
The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, has earned more recognition for her athletic prowess than her achievements in spelling. She is a basketball prodigy who has appeared in a commercial with Stephen Curry and owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.
She has more than 12,000 Instagram followers — where videos of her dazzling skills have won praise from musician Michael Franti, among others — and she hopes to attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and possibly coach one day in the NBA, if she doesn't go to work for NASA.
Competitive spelling came relatively late in life, starting at age 12.
“Basketball, I'm not just playing it. I'm really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It's like a little hors d'ouevre. But basketball's like the main dish.”
Don't be mistaken: Zaila brings the same competitive fire to spelling that she shows on court. She won last year's Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee — one of several bees that emerged during the pandemic after Scripps canceled last year — and used the $10,000 first prize to pay for study materials and $130-an-hour sessions with a private tutor, 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.
The time commitment required to master roots, language patterns and definitions is what keeps many top spellers from seriously pursuing sports or other activities. But Zaila, who is home-schooled, claims to have it figured out.
“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said. “We don't let it go way too overboard, of course. I've got school and basketball to do.”
Seven hours a day isn't going overboard?
“I have my suspicions. I don't know. I have some suspicions that maybe it's a bit less than what some spellers do,” she said.
Whether all that preparation leads to a trophy and $50,000 in cash and prizes will be determined Thursday night when Zaila faces 10 other spellers for the only in-person portion of this year's pandemic-altered bee. Normally staged at a convention center outside Washington, the bee was moved to an ESPN campus in Florida, with attendance strictly limited and masking and distancing protocols in place.
“This is an entirely different experience. The structure of the bee is different, the location is different, so I'm really excited to see what this bee has in store,” said 14-year-old Ashrita Gandhari of Ashburn, Virginia, competing for the fourth time.
Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of jazz musician John Coltrane — would chart a new career path for spellers if her hoop dreams come true. She could also make spelling history of a different sort, by becoming the first Black American champion. The only previous Black winner of the bee was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.
Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African-Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can't afford to pursue it.
“Maybe they don't have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don't have access to that,” Zaila said. “With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates.”
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 Census 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 new 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.
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