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14-year-old becomes the first African American winner of National Spelling Bee

Louisiana teenager Zaila Avant-garde, 14, has made history by becoming the first African American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in its 96-year history.

She was named the winner as she spelled ‘murraya,’ a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees, correctly on Thrusday night. 

Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously. 

The teenager and her competitors were given a pep talk ahead of the bee by First Lady Jill Biden, who said: ‘I wanted to be here personally to tell you that the president and I are so proud of all that you’ve accomplished.’

Louisiana teenager Zaila Avant-garde, 14, has made history by becoming the first African American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in its 96-year history

She won by properly spelling 'murraya,' a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees

She won by properly spelling ‘murraya,’ a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees

First Lady Jill Biden told the 11 finalists at the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday that she and the president are proud of all they had accomplished

First Lady Jill Biden told the 11 finalists at the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday that she and the president are proud of all they had accomplished

Zaila Avant-garde triumphantly held up her trophy after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Zaila Avant-garde triumphantly held up her trophy after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee

This year’s bee was delayed because of the pandemic and all preliminary rounds were held virtually. 

Only the 11 finalists competed in person Thursday night, at an ESPN campus near Walt Disney World in Florida.

Biden previously attended the bee in 2009 in Washington, D.C. 

She is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, where she also worked during the eight years that President Joe Biden was vice president, and she has her own history in competitive spelling.

‘In sixth grade, I was my school’s spelling bee champion. I had a chance to go to the next level, but on the day of the regional competition, I told my mother that I was sick,’ she told the spellers. 

‘The truth was that I was too nervous to go, so I have incredible admiration for each and every one of you.’ 

She then sat in the audience with some of the families and watched as the young spellers got picked off one-by-one until Avant-garde was named the winner as she spelled ‘murraya,’ a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.

Facing off fierce competition from students across America, Zalia seemed to know nearly every word and its origins, the New York Times reports, smiling each time Jacques A. Bailly, the pronouncer, gave her a new word to spell.

Only one word gave her any real trouble, ‘nepeta,’ a genus of Old World mints, which she still managed to get correct, jumping with joy at her success.

She arrived in Florida Thursday evening for the Spelling Bee, after a day trying to convince Georgians to get vaccinated against the disease, and was greeted by Rep. Val Demmings when she arrived in Orlando

She arrived in Florida Thursday evening for the Spelling Bee, after a day trying to convince Georgians to get vaccinated against the disease, and was greeted by Rep. Val Demmings when she arrived in Orlando

The first lady, an English professor, mentioned she was once her school's spelling bee champion but she faked being sick so she would not have to compete

The first lady, an English professor, mentioned she was once her school’s spelling bee champion but she faked being sick so she would not have to compete

Biden wore a face mask due to the coronavirus pandemic, as she sat with a family member of a contestant

Biden wore a face mask due to the coronavirus pandemic, as she sat with a family member of a contestant

The last few words were rattled off quickly between Zaila and her opponent, Chaitra Thummula, a 12-year-old from Texas. The first was ‘fewtrils,’ meaning things of little value, which Chaitra got correct, then ‘retene,’ a crystalline hydrocarbon, which Zaila got right.

But when Chaitra was confronted with the word ‘neroli oil,’ a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly that is used in cologne and as a flavoring, she fumbled on the vowels, leading Zaila to claim victory with the word ‘murraya.’ 

As she got it correct, she visibly twirled and leaped with excitement.

Both Zaila and Chaitra are coached by Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student who was the 2015 Scripps runner-up.

Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously

Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously 

When Zalia's competitor was given the word 'neroli oil,' a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly that is used in cologne and as a flavoring, she fumbled on the vowels, leading Zaila to claim victory with the word 'murraya.' As she got it correct, she visibly twirled and leaped with excitement

When Zalia’s competitor was given the word ‘neroli oil,’ a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly that is used in cologne and as a flavoring, she fumbled on the vowels, leading Zaila to claim victory with the word ‘murraya.’ As she got it correct, she visibly twirled and leaped with excitement

Vivinsha Veduru, 10, of Fort Worth, Texas, was one of the 11 finalists to take part in the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World on Thursday night

Vivinsha Veduru, 10, of Fort Worth, Texas, was one of the 11 finalists to take part in the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World on Thursday night

Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York, was consoled by her family members after being eliminated from the bee

Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York, was consoled by her family members after being eliminated from the bee

Zaila Avant-garde is congratulated for advancing to the final two contestants

Zaila Avant-garde is congratulated for advancing to the final two contestants

Judges originally ruled Roy Seligman, 12, from Nassau, the Bahamas, correct on his spelling of the word 'ambystoma,' a genus of salamanders, but when they did an instant replay they discovered he spelled the word with an 'I' rather than a 'Y' and he was eliminated from the competition

Judges originally ruled Roy Seligman, 12, from Nassau, the Bahamas, correct on his spelling of the word ‘ambystoma,’ a genus of salamanders, but when they did an instant replay they discovered he spelled the word with an ‘I’ rather than a ‘Y’ and he was eliminated from the competition

At one point in the competition, judges had to make the rare move of airing a replay as they worked to determine whether Roy Seligman, a 12-year-old from Nassau, the Bahamas misspelled ‘ambystoma’ a genus of salamanders.

At first, USA Today reports, judges ruled he was correct, but after they reviewed the audio, they determined he misspelled the word with an ‘I’ rather than a ‘Y.’

In response to the ruling, Seligman said he ‘messed up.’

‘I feel like I could have gotten it right if I just took my time,’ he said.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee later tweeted: ‘No one envies the judges on having to make these calls.

‘Roy represented the Bahamas wonderfully tonight and throughout the competition,’ the organization wrote.

Ashrita Gandhari, 14, from Leesburg, Virginia, was visibly upset after she misspelled a word

Ashrita Gandhari, 14, from Leesburg, Virginia, was visibly upset after she misspelled a word

Dhroov Bharatia, 12, from Plano, Texas was clearly excited when he properly spelled a word

Dhroov Bharatia, 12, from Plano, Texas was clearly excited when he properly spelled a word

Thursday evening’s festivities came after the first lady spent the day traveling through Georgia in an effort to get more people vaccinated.

She toured a pop-up vaccination site at a Savannah high school with Senator Raphael Warnock.

Jill Biden on August cover of Vogue

Jill Biden on August cover of Vogue

Warnock, one of the state’s two Democratic senators who won a January special election, is up for re-election next year and already a top Republican target.

The first lady praised him repeatedly in her remarks.

‘You’ve been in the Senate what less than a year now. But gosh, look at all he has done. You know, you’ve already delivered for this state,’ she said, adding that Warnock invited her to come visit his home town. 

Biden wore the blue Oscar de la Renta dress she donned in her cover shoot for the August edition of Vogue, where she was the subject of a flowery profile about her work as first lady. She often repeats her designer outfits.

She has been touring the nation, focusing on states with low vaccine rates, to get more shots in the arms of Americans. Last week she was in Texas and Arizona while, the week before that, she was in Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida.

‘As long as the COVID team asks me to go,’ she said of her work. ‘This is a team effort and I’m part of the White House team.’ 

The first lady added that since it is summer and she is not in the classroom teaching she has more time and flexibility to make these trips. 

She said she is trying to zero in on those who have little interest in being vaccinated. 

‘There are people who think, ‘oh I haven’t gotten sick so far,’ or ‘it’s not so serious,’ adding those are the Americans who need to keep hearing her message. ‘We have to do everting we can do.’  

Jill Biden donned the dress she wore for her Vogue cover during a trip to Georgia

Jill Biden donned the dress she wore for her Vogue cover during a trip to Georgia

Jill Biden was joined in her COVID vaccine push by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is a top Republican target in the 2022 elections

Jill Biden was joined in her COVID vaccine push by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is a top Republican target in the 2022 elections

Jill Biden got a pie to-go at Green Truck Neighborhood Pub in Savannah, Georgia

Jill Biden got a pie to-go at Green Truck Neighborhood Pub in Savannah, Georgia

Jill Biden payed for her pecan pies during an unscheduled stop at a diner in Savannah

Jill Biden payed for her pecan pies during an unscheduled stop at a diner in Savannah

Georgia has 37% of its adults vaccinated and 44% have gone at least one shot, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

‘When you decide to get vaccinated, you’re protecting yourself and your community. You make it safer for your kids, your family members, your church friends, person by person, we can stop this virus together, but only if we all do our part,’ Biden said.

She also made an unscheduled stop at the Green Truck Neighborhood Pub to pick up some pecan pies. 

The small diner was suggested to her by Senator Warnock, who said they have great pies.  

Biden and Warnock toured a vaccine site at A. E. Beach high school.

There Biden offered to call the family members of a man after he said some of his relatives had gotten the COVID vaccine but some hadn’t.

‘Should I call them?’ the first lady asked.

He replied he might need to work on them a little. Biden told him she’d be ‘here for a little while’ should he change his mind and want her to call.

She thanked him again for getting vaccinated. ‘It means a lot, it really does,’ she says. 

She also met with a mom and her two daughters – 18 and 15 – both of whom had just gotten their shots. The mom said the girls were nervous about it and the first lady thanked them for getting their dosage.

The Biden administration is pushing more shots in arms after President Joe Biden fell short of his target – at least 70% of adults partially vaccinated by July 4. Health officials are also worried about the Delta strain of the COVID virus, which is more contagious. 

Warnock, meanwhile, is a top Republican target in the 2022 midterm election after his win in January’s special election – a victory that gave Democrats’ control of the Senate.

Already three GOP candidates have entered the primary and Donald Trump claims former NFL player Herschel Walker told him that he plans to run. 

Walker is a Heisman Trophy winner and helped steer the University of Georgia to a college football national championship. Hugely popular in the state, Trump has been pushing him to run.

Jill Biden and Sen. Warnock pose for pics at the Green Truck Neighborhood Pub in Savannah

Jill Biden and Sen. Warnock pose for pics at the Green Truck Neighborhood Pub in Savannah

Jill Biden offered to call the family members of a man after he said some of his relatives had gotten the COVID vaccine but some hadn't

Jill Biden offered to call the family members of a man after he said some of his relatives had gotten the COVID vaccine but some hadn’t

The first lady also spoke with some newly vaccinated teens and their mother

The first lady also spoke with some newly vaccinated teens and their mother

Warnock defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to fill out Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. 

Loeffler isn’t ruling out a rematch. 

‘I have not ruled anything out,’ Loeffler told Fox News in mid-June.

Georgia was a red state until President Joe Biden won it by less than 12,000 votes in the 2020 election – a result Trump contested. 

In the wake of the presidential contest, Republicans in the state passed new voting rules that critics say make it harder for African Americans to vote. The Justice Department is suing the state over it. 




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