Human Interest 2021 National Spelling Bee Champ Zaila Avant-garde Makes History as First Black American Winner The 2020 Scripps National Spelling Bee was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making this year's competition extra special for its 11 finalists By Jen Juneau Jen Juneau Twitter Jen Juneau is a digital news writer for PEOPLE. A '90s teen and horror film connoisseur, she started at the brand in 2016, after a decade of working as a technical writer and then moonlighting as a journalist beginning in 2013. Originally from New Orleans, Jen grew up both in NOLA and Florida and eventually attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando (still her home base!), where she earned a bachelor's in English/technical communication, with a minor in magazine journalism. People Editorial Guidelines Published on July 8, 2021 10:21 PM Share Tweet Pin Email And the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner is ... Zaila Avant-garde! The 14-year-old eighth-grader from Harvey, Louisiana, correctly spelled "Murraya" — a genus of flowering plants — to clinch victory Thursday night during the bee's live finals at Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Zaila, who is also a basketball prodigy, is the first Black American student to be crowned the champion in the bee's nearly century-long history, as well as the first winner from Louisiana. (Her sponsor was the New Orleans Chapter of the Links.) PEOPLE chatted with Zaila after her exciting win, when she said, "I want to inspire everybody, especially African American girls" with her victory, which she secured after only having competed in the bee once previously — in 2019, when she finished 370th. Of her future plans, the teen says she wants to continue on her athletic journey and go to Harvard University "as a basketball player and student," as she believes it's "a good way to open doors to maybe being an NBA basketball coach" one day. But her passions don't stop there. "I like working with NASA and doing gene editing. I have a lot of different things I'm interested in," Zaila adds. Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human-interest stories. That's a Word? Look Back at Some of the Winning Terms from the Scripps National Spelling Bee For the 2021 event, spellers competed virtually in the quarterfinals and semifinals over several weeks. Eleven finalists traveled down to Florida for the finals that normally take place in Washington, D.C., as do the preliminary rounds during the competition's usual in-person "Bee Week." The bee was especially poignant this year (First Lady Dr. Jill Biden was even in attendance!), as last year's competition was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After the 2020 bee (which normally takes place in late May/early June) was postponed last March, officials said the following month that they couldn't reschedule because "there is no clear path to safely set a new date in 2020." "Our thoughts immediately go to our spellers and their families," said Paige Kimble, executive director of the bee, in a statement at the time. "The students have dedicated time and effort to their passion for learning. They should be proud of all they have accomplished by winning spelling bees at the classroom, school and regional level." RELATED VIDEO: Scripps National Spelling Bee Ends with Second Tie in 50 Years Added Kimble, "Nevertheless, our first priority has to be the health and well-being of our spellers and their families and the hundreds of staff and spectators that come together for Bee Week." Scripps announced the return of the bee in February, in a press release that stated, "The decision to limit the in-person portion of the competition to no more than 12 spellers was made in consideration of the health and safety of participants, their families and everyone involved in the event's production as the country continues to combat the COVID-19 pandemic." It went on, "The in-person portion of the competition ... will follow protocols based on guidance from health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for social distancing and masking." In 2019, the bee saw an unprecedented outcome when eight contestants tied to win. After 17 rounds, longtime announcer (and 1980 champion!) Jacques Bailly said the competition would end after 20 rounds, and anyone who spelled three more words correctly would be crowned co-champions. The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee aired live from Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPNU.