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14-year-old creates history, becomes first African-American to win Spelling Bee


Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from New Orleans, Louisiana, reacts after winning the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee finals at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, US. (REUTERS)

Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from the state of Louisiana, created history as the first African-American contestant to have won the US National Spelling Bee crown on Thursday.
Her winning word was ‘murraya’ – a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with overlapping petals.

The achievement saw her break the Indian-American community’s 13-year hold on the trophy that the immigrants had come to see as their stamp of arrival in the United States, Hindustantimes reports.

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Avant-garde who had emerged as a popular contestant with quick and easy repartees with the competition’s long-time pronouncer Jacques A Bailly, beat Chaitra Thummala, the last of the Indian-Americans in the finals of the 93rd Spelling Bee, who got the compound word – neroli oil – wrong. Neroli oil is known to be a type of essential oil that is extracted from the flowers of bitter orange trees.

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Balu Natarajan was the first Indian-American winner of the Spelling Bee way back in 1985.

Indian-Americans have won many spelling bee crowns subsequently since 2008. Their unrelenting hold on the competition has been the subject of popular documentaries.

Asked about her victory, Avant-garde said, “I mean, I was a bit surprised.”

“I had been warned about the confetti,” she said, referring to the celebration. “But I didn’t quite understand what they meant, so that was a bit surprising.”

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Nine of the 11 finalists were Indian-Americans who have dominated the contest for more than a decade now.

The contest was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.