Zaila Avant-garde, spelling bee champ and basketball phenom, won't stop being great

Zaila Avant-garde won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World in July. On Tuesday, she'll be a panelist at the espnW Women + Sports Summit at Torrey Pines. AP Photo/John Raoux


"Hectic" has become one of Zaila Avant-garde's most frequently used words to describe life after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee in July. The 15-year-old Louisiana native and first African American champion's winning moment became her key to unlock a whole new world.

Avant-garde's historic win garnered the attention of notables like former U.S. President Barack Obama, Halle Berry and LeBron James. Overnight she was walking red carpets, including ESPN's ESPYS awards in July, and making appearances on "The Today Show" and "Live with Kelly and Ryan." She even made a late-night TV pit stop on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Avant-garde's latest stop includes the espnW Women + Sports Summit on Tuesday.

"I went to the ESPYS, and there were a whole bunch of people there," Avant-garde said. "The [women's basketball] coach of Stanford University, Tara [VanDerveer], was talking to me, and Stanford was deep in there because they were getting an award that night, so that was pretty hectic. I got to meet Paige Bueckers, which was unbelievable to meet somebody like that. And then there were just so many more people."

Life can get busy, and her calendar is filled to the brim, but Avant-garde always makes time for herself and wants everyone to know that she's having a blast.

"I'm having lots of fun," Avant-garde said before the espnW Summit. "I'm being rewarded. I've had a lot of fun traveling around to different places, so I'm looking forward to traveling to the espnW Summit because it's another chance to speak and encourage girls. I think that's been the most rewarding aspect of it.

"If you look at me, you see ... that you can be an African American, you can be a girl. You don't have to be rich. All you need is self-belief that you can do it and the ability and the willingness to do it. And as long as you do that, you've got this."

Avant-garde received a hero's welcome after her spelling bee win upon returning to Louisiana, where she was greeted with a second line -- a traditional parade consisting of a brass band followed by a line of upbeat participants dancing to the music -- thrown by neighbors and family to celebrate her accomplishments.

"They tried to get me to dance in the second line, but I'm a bit shy about that, so I was just moving the umbrella up and down, and it was really awkward," Avant-garde recalled. "You expect, of course, for people to congratulate me, but it was just unbelievable."

Zaila Avant-garde wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Zaila Avant-garde spells the word "Murraya" to beat Chaitra Thummala and win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Avant-garde successfully spelled "Murraya," a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees, to become champion, twirling in the colorful confetti that rained down on her. But before that, she spent most of her days as any other teenager: focusing on school, studying hard, spending time with her three younger brothers and practicing her basketball skills to become an even better player. The latter has been one of the most constant and important parts of her life.

Avant-garde began playing basketball at 5 when the sport was introduced to her by her father, Jawara Spacetime, who loves the intricacy of basketball as much as she does.

"I was the kid who was bouncing off the walls and breaking stuff," Avant-garde said. "And my parents were like, 'You need a vent for all this energy.' I started basketball, and I really liked it. My father once contemplated putting me into soccer, but the thing about soccer is that with a whole bunch of girls kicking, you could get kicked in your knees and shins. And he saw one video of that and was like, 'No.'Since then, Avant-garde has continued to make a name for herself in basketball. She holds three basketball-related Guinness World Records, earned in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

"I have the record for most basketballs dribbled at once [six]. Which I was kind of like, 'All right, I finished it, that's it. I have the No. 1 Guinness basketball record,'" Avant-garde said. "I have that record, but I might actually come up with another record. It's just something I thought about because it's just fun to get records. I don't know."

Avant-garde continues to be inspired by WNBA players, which all started while watching YouTube videos of Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum.

"When I was a little girl, I watched a training video of Kelsey Plum. Every day was a video of her training. She's one of the foundations of my basketball journey.

"And then there are Skylar Diggins-Smith, who's also somebody who's even actually complimented me before on social media. There's also Candace Parker. It's just incredible. There's so many of these players all over the place."

As for the future, Avant-garde says her main goal is to play basketball at Harvard before graduating from the prestigious university. From there, Avant-garde plans to split her time between being an NBA coach and working at NASA.

The secret to balancing everything in her life and doing so with grace beyond her years? "I have 25 hours in a day," Avant-garde said.