Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from New Orleans, Louisiana, was crowned the winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night. Avant-garde, who is the first African-American winner of the bee, ended the competition with the word “murraya.”
Avant-garde said she felt “really good” after her victory. “Now I get a nice trophy, which is the best part of any win,” she said on stage.
In the final rounds of the competition, Avant-garde faced off against 12-year-old Chaitra Thummala. After the girls spelled two words correctly each — fidibus, haltere, nepeta and fewtrils — Thummala faltered on neroli oil, leaving Avant-garde the opportunity to claim the title.
When presented with her final word, murraya, she first asked if it included the English name Murray, “which could be the name of a comedian.”
Even with the pronouncer’s response — “I don’t see that here” — Avant-garde spelled the word correctly, winning the title and the $50,000 prize.
The bee’s final round was the first of this year’s competition to be held in person, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, which brought the number of competitors from 209 to 11, were all held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Six competitors advanced to the second round of the final, where they were tasked with answering multiple choice questions about word definitions. All six sailed through the round, with some taking just seconds to answer.
The third round, another traditional spelling round, dashed the hopes of three more competitors.
“I just feel happy about how far I went,” said 11-year-old Vivinsha Veduru, after she was eliminated on the word chrysal.
Only three competitors, all of whom are female, advanced to the fourth round: Thummala, Avant-garde and 13-year-old Bhavana Madini.
Madini stumbled on athanor in the fifth round, and was eliminated after Avant-garde spelled depreter. Thummala easily spelled consertal, which brought her and Avant-garde to the final two.
Though the competition was tense, the atmosphere was light between the two finalists. After spelling words correctly, the girls — who according to ESPN, were trained by the same coach — repeatedly high-fived each other.
First lady Jill Biden also attended the bee, and spoke about the importance of such an event for the competitors.
“What this does is it gives these kids confidence, and I think that’s of utmost importance in life,” the first lady said.
She also recalled her own experience with spelling bees, noting that after winning a bee in 6th grade, she played sick to avoid moving forward in the competition because she was too nervous.
“These kids have so much courage and I really admire them,” Biden said.