Chaitra Thummala, 12, sixth grader from San Francisco, California’s Gale Ranch Middle School, and Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from New Orleans fought it out, though in a friendly fashion, high-fiving each other as they battled for the crown. But it was Zaila Avant-garde who won the top prize. Zaila won it by spelling ‘murraya’ correctly, a word that refers to a tropical Asiatic and Australian tree species. For the first time in the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s 96-year history, an African American has taken home the top prize.
In the round just before the last, Thummala incorrectly spelt the word neroli oil (an essential oil from flowers, mainly the sour orange, which is used in cologne and as a flavoring), leaving the field open for Avant-garde. In all. There were nine Indian-Americans were among the finalists at the Scripps National Spelling Bee July 8, 2021, which also saw a visit from First Lady Jill Biden. The winner receives numerous prizes including $50,000 in cash;the official championship trophy, a cash prize and reference library from Merriam-Webster; more reference works valued at $2,500; and a 3-year membership to the Britannica Online Premium.
According to her bio on the National Spelling Bee website,”Thummala Chaitra loves music and traveling. She recently got a baby brother who she loves playing with along with her little sister. She wants to go to Santorini, Greece. Her favorite books are Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder and The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson. She has won awards at her local Science Olympiad and Math Olympiad.”
A spelling bee is a contest in which participants must spell aloud words announced by a judge. The high-profile Scripps National Spelling Bee is closely followed by students and their parents across the US and the finals are broadcast on prime-time television. This year, the winner got a cash prize of $50,000. Of the 11 finalists of the Scripps spelling bee held in the ESPN Sports Complex in Florida’s Orlando, Florida, nine were Indian-Americans. In the final round, Avant-garde was pitted against Chaitra Thummula from California, who dropped out after being unable to spell “neroli oil” correctly. Avant-garde scored her victory after spelling the word “Murraya”, a genus of tropical Australian trees.
First lady Jill Biden, an educator herself, was there to witness the drama. The competition this year was fierce, with new rules to raise the bar. Each level had an additional “word meaning” round to test vocabulary. The threat of a “spell-off” loomed over the finalists. Past years ended in ties — a record eight spellers won in 2019 — but this year, a new rule said that spellers who remain at the end of the allotted time have 90 seconds to spell as many words as they can from a predetermined spell-off list of words. But there was no need for a tie-breaker, to the chagrin of some rapt spectators: Avant-garde handily out spelled the competition.
As it turns out, Avant-garde excels at much more than spelling. She holds three Guinness World Records for her skills in dribbling six basketballs simultaneously, the most basketball bounces and bounce juggles. The teenager is a champion basketball player and has said that she hopes to compete in the Women’s National Basketball Association when she grows up. Ahead of the spelling bee finals, ESPN shared a video of Avant-garde playing basketball. Since members of the Indian-American community have been winning the competition since 2008, Avant-garde’s win stood out. There has been only one Black winner of the competition so far, a student from Jamaica in 1998.
Avant-garde – whose father changed her last name from Heard as a mark of respect to jazz musician John Coltrane – said she hoped that more members of the African-American community will be inspired to participate in the competition. “Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” she said told the Associated Press. After her victory, Avant-garde said that had taken up competitive spelling only two years ago. “Spelling is really a side thing I do,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”
The finalists included –
Roy Seligman, 12, from Nassau, The Bahamas. Sponsored by The Ministry of Education.
Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York. Sponsored by NYC Regional Spelling Bee.
Sreethan Gajula, 14, from Charlotte, North Carolina. Sponsored by the Carolina Panthers.
Ashrita Gandhari, 14, from Leesburg, Virginia. Sponsored by Loudoun County Public Schools.
Avani Joshi, 13, from Loves Park, Illinois. Sponsored by Boone-Winnebago Regional Office of Education.
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from New Orleans. Sponsored by New Orleans Chapter of The Links.
Vivinsha Veduru, 10, from Fort Worth, Texas. Sponsored by Texas Christian University.
Dhroov Bharatia, 12, from Dallas. Sponsored by Dallas Sports Commission.
Vihaan Sibal, 12, from Waco, Texas. Sponsored by Rapoport Holdings, LLC.
Akshainie Kamma, 13, from Austin, Texas. Sponsored by West Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Chaitra Thummala, 12, from San Francisco. Sponsored by Bay Area Regional Spelling Bee.