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Louisiana teen makes spelling bee history without going 'too overboard'

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Louisiana teen Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The 14-year-old won the spelling bee by correctly spelling “murraya” in the first spelling bee championship in 26 months due to the pandemic, ESPN said.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said in a tweet after Avante-garde’s win.

Zaila was inspired by the memory of MacNolia Cox, the event’s first black finalist in 1936 who was barred from staying in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers, ESPN said.

“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she told The Associated Press. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”

After losing in the preliminary rounds in 2019, she began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray. The 20-year-old Yale student was the 2015 Scripps runner-up, ESPN said.

Shafer-Ray said top spellers usually have to practice and train for years, but Zalia had a different approach than any speller he’d seen.

“Not only did she know each word’s spelling, but she also knew its entire backstory – what its historical context was, what roots it came from, and the precise orthographical logic of why every letter of every word had to be exactly what it was,” Shafer-Ray told ESPN.

Zalia didn’t start competing in spelling until a few years ago when her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the bee on TV. He realized his daughter’s ability to calculate complicated math equations in her head could translate well to spelling, ESPN said.

Not only is Zaila a spelling whiz, but the 14-year-old is a basketball prodigy as well, the AP reported.

She holds Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

She has dreams of playing in the WNBA one day and possibly coaching in the NBA. Spelling is a  hobby despite practicing seven hours a day.

“Congratulations, Zaila! We’re all so proud of you. I have a feeling this isn’t the last time you’ll be making history,” President Joe Biden said in a tweet.