- The 14-year-old 8th grader bested 9 Indian Americans and a Bahamian, to become the Bee’s first African American champion in its 98-year-old history.
Indian Americans’ 13-year dominance over the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended the night of July 8, when Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana spelled her way to win the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition, becoming the Bee’s first African American champion in its 98-year-old history. Her winning word – “murraya” – a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.
The 2021 winner, Avant-garde, who hopes to join the WNBA and become either an NBA coach or a NASA scientist, nudged out Indian American bee hopeful Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, who misstated a vowel of the word Neroli oil, to lose the top spot. Thummala, who recently moved from San Ramon, California to Texas, and missed celebrating her 12th birthday, as she was busy cramming for the Bee, is reportedly looking forward to unpacking, celebrating her birthday but above all catching up on sleep.
Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, came in third. She lost her chance at the top spot when she misspelled athanor. However, Madini did not appear crestfallen. Why? Her mom, who even though doesn’t like dogs, promised her one if she came in the Top 5. Madini is all set to pick out her white Maltese, who she hopes to name Joy.
Avant-garde, a talented basketball player, and the top 8th-grade b-ball prospect in the country conquered words such as “retene,” “ancistroidand,” “depreter,” over multiple rounds, before jumping up and down and letting out an excited whoop as confetti rained down on the stage, marking her the winner.
Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won the bee in 1998, was the competition’s first Black champion.
For over a decade, Indian American kids have been ruling the national spelling bee circuit and claiming the championship trophy. Scripps National Spelling Bee data shows that 27 of the last 35 winners were of Indian origin.
In 2019, eight children — seven of them Indian Americans — were declared co-winners at the coveted bee in Washington, D.C. Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of California; Erin Howard, 14, of Alabama; Saketh Sundar, 13, of Maryland; Shruthika Padhy, 13, of New Jersey; Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Texas; Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Texas; Christopher Serrao, 13, of New Jersey and Rohan Raja, 13, of Texas — closed the Bee with 47 correct spellings in a row in a final that went into 20 rounds. Each speller displayed his or her command over words and etymologies. That was the first time that more than two co-champions were named in the national bee.
In 2014, Sriram J. Hathwar of New York, and Ansun Sujoe of Texas were named co-winners for the first time in Scripps history. Two years later, Sriram’s younger brother Jairam was declared co-champion with Nihar Saireddy Janga of Texas.
This year’s competition marked the Bee’s return after the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation last year for the first time since World War II. However, signs of the pandemic were still apparent at the event, which was considerably smaller compared with past years: Only 11 finalists, (of the original 209) traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where the final rounds were held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Preliminary rounds, typically held live in the days leading up to the spelling bee finals, had instead been held virtually over the past several weeks.
On July 8 night, the finalists — most of them still too young to be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine — wore masks any time they were not at the microphone and sat in chairs spaced several feet from one another. The participants were also allowed to bring 3 people, mostly family members, to cheer them on from the audience.
Still, spellers seemed grateful to have an in-person bee once again as speller Avani Joshi, a 13-year-old from Illinois, said upon her elimination with the word “gewgaw” – “Thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s been — we really needed the spelling bee this year and I’m really thankful for this opportunity.”
First lady Jill Biden, who was amongst the audience cheering on the young spellers, noted that she had been her school’s sixth-grade spelling champion but chickened out on the day of the regional competition, thus ending her bee dreams. “I told my mother that I was sick, because I was too scared to get up in front of everybody,” said Biden, also an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, but took this opportunity to tell the spellers how much in awe of their bravery and confidence she was.
And what’s a competition without nail-biting moments. The judges needed to go to the tape to replay speller Roy Seligman’s spelling of the word ambystoma to officially determine whether he spelled the word with an “I” instead of a “Y.” At first, the judges told Seligman he was correct before opting to review the audio of his spelling. But after the review and after conferring with other officials, judge Mary Brooks turned to Nassau, Bahamas native, Roy and reluctantly dinged the bell to indicate he had been eliminated. They determined that Seligman misspelled the word by using an “I.” After elimination, Seligman said he “messed up,” but was proud of himself for making it to the finals. “I feel like I could have gotten it right if I just took my time,” a young Roy said to the Scripps Spelling Bee team.
The top three winners will be taking home other than bragging rights, cash prizes of $50,000, $25,000, and $15,000 respectively.