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
July 08, 2021 10:21 PM
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Zaila Avant-garde

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.

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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."

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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.