Why Barack Obama Can't Stop Talking About The Latest Spelling Bee Champion

Can you say W-O-W? A 14-year-old word whiz from Louisiana just outshone the competition at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship. Zaila Avant-garde clinched the victory on July 8 by correctly spelling "murraya" (a genus of white flowering plants native to Asia and Australia), thus beating out 204 other competitors. As audiences at home watched, the young champ twirled around joyfully in the shower of confetti that followed her win. 

Avant-garde's victory was an historic one for a number of reasons. She's the first winner from Louisiana, as well as a Guinness World Record holder in basketball dribbling (she can maneuver six balls at once). Most significantly, she's the first Black American competitor to take home the prestigious award. (Per PBS, a girl from Jamaica won the bee in 1998.) That distinction wasn't lost on former President Barack Obama, who took to Twitter to offer his congratulations. "Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila — your hard work is paying off. We're all proud of you," he wrote. 

The young champ is well aware of the importance of her accomplishment. She knows that she follows in the footsteps of girls like MacNolia Cox: In 1936, Cox became the first Black finalist in the bee — but wasn't allowed to stay in the same hotel as the other spellers because of her race. "I want to inspire everybody, especially African American girls," Avant-garde told People in a post-competition interview. 

Zaila Avant-garde's possibilities are limitless

Zaila Avant-garde displayed a talent for words and numbers at an early age, per The New York Times, and her father thought she had what it took to become a spelling ace. She competed two years ago but didn't make it past the preliminary round. She went on to study with a past champion to prepare for the next competition. Sadly, the 2020 spelling bee was canceled because of the pandemic, but it was reinstated this year with a number of restrictions. In keeping with social distancing recommendations, only the 11 finalists and their immediate families were allowed at the in-person event. 

The proud champion won't be going for a second title next year, as the Scripps Spelling Bee is open only to students who are either under 15 or who haven't yet finished eighth grade. But Avant-garde is ready to move on. Her future goals include attending Harvard and possibly becoming a basketball coach (her Twitter handle is @BasketballAsArt) or a NASA scientist like her hero Mae Jemison. 

Joining Barack Obama in the flood of congratulations were First Lady Jill Biden, who tweeted, "Congratulations Zaila!!!" Another Obama — Michelletweeted, "Yes, Zaila! We are so, so proud of you!" One possible future employer also gave her a shoutout: The NASA account tweeted, "The word is 'star.' Definition: Zaila Avant-garde. Congratulations on your amazing #SpellingBee win, @BasketballAsArt! We hope you'll join the NASA family one day!"