She's a Spelling Bee Finalist, and a Basketball Prodigy

Meet Zaila Avant-garde of Louisiana
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 8, 2021 2:54 PM CDT
One Spelling Bee Finalist Is a Basketball Prodigy
Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, La., poses for a photo, Wednesday, July 7, 2021, at a hotel in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where she is preparing to compete in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. With a victory, 14-year-old Zaila would become the second Black national spelling champion, and the...   (AP Photo/Ben Nuckols)

Finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee will get a visit from one of the nation's most prominent educators: first lady Jill Biden. The first lady will meet with spellers and their families before the bee Thursday evening and stay to watch the competition, per the AP. This year's bee was delayed because of the pandemic and all preliminary rounds were held virtually. Only the 11 finalists are competing in person, at an ESPN campus near Walt Disney World in Florida. The finals will be televised on ESPN2. The AP, meanwhile, has a separate profile on one of the finalists, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, Louisiana. Zaila 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.

Zaila also 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.” If she wins the spelling bee, Zaila would make history as 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. Read the full profile.

(More spelling bee stories.)

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