Zaila Avant-garde isn’t your average 14-year-old: Last week, the Louisiana native won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming the first African American champion in the 96-year-old competition’s history. She also holds three Guinness World Records in basketball dribbling. And she has read 1,000 books, which she tracks in notebooks, she said.
“Words are really important to me,” Avant-garde told The Lily. “Spelling was kind of a natural progression.”
To win the spelling bee, Avant-garde correctly spelled “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic or Australian trees. But the first association she made was to comedian Bill Murray, asking the judges: “Does this word contain the English name Murray, which could be the name of the comedian?”
The now-champion has been a longtime fan of one of Murray’s most popular films, “Lost In Translation,” and has regularly listened to the soundtrack since she was a kid: “That’s always been kind of a part of me, so that’s how I always remember that word,” she said.
To prepare for the bee, Avant-garde practiced spelling for seven hours a day — which she said was made possible by her homeschool schedule, which keeps her studying six days a week and year-round, but for less hours per day than a normal school schedule.
The Lily caught up with Avant-garde about how she fills the rest of her days — she likes studying history and mythology, and has “side interests in neuroscience and gene editing” — and what it was like to finally meet Bill Murray during her whirlwind post-win week.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: First off, congratulations on your win last week. Did you get to celebrate?
A: I guess you could say the whole week has kind of been a celebration, but I haven’t done anything specific yet to celebrate it. … I’ve had a really fun week just doing lots of fun stuff including interviews and appearances on TV shows, so I’ve definitely had a fun time, just not an actual celebration.
There is going to be a parade and a party Sunday, I believe, [in Louisiana].
I had a really hectic travel schedule. First I went from Louisiana to Orlando, I drove all the way there — don’t ask me about that. It was really fun but it was also a bit hectic. Then I flew up to New York City to be at the ESPYS [the ESPN Awards], then I flew back to New Orleans for less than 24 hours, then flew back to New York, and walked through the entirety of New York City because my mother got lost. ... Then I went to Los Angeles, which was also super fun, and also sometimes the airplanes had TVs in them, which was really cool!
Q: Did you have any favorite experiences or meet any cool people?
A: I met a whole bunch of people, especially at the ESPYS … I was really excited to meet [Olympic sprinter] Sha’Carri Richardson, because I’ve always liked her since I first learned about her … she also is from [Louisiana] and went to LSU. I met plenty of other cool people but I’m kind of blanking!
Q: I saw on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” that you spelled “portmanteau” while dribbling three basketballs and balancing on a yoga roller — and you met Bill Murray?
A: Oh yeah!
Q: What was that like?
A: That was super cool! I didn’t know the Bill Murray thing was going to come at all, so I was so surprised when Bill Murray popped up on the screen. I just couldn’t believe it … if I was a person who was, like, really scared of the spotlight and suddenly got nervous, that could’ve just completely thrown me off, but luckily I was still able to do what I needed to do.
Q: You seem comfortable in the spotlight and giving interviews — do you get stage fright?
A: No, I don’t really get stage fright — I’m pretty comfortable with people in general … so interviews aren’t something that’s too nerve-wracking to me.
Q: You have many talents — you also hold three world records in basketball dribbling. How’d that happen?
A: Basketball is something I’ve been practicing for a lot longer than spelling — basketball, I’ve been doing that since I was 5 years old, and the reason that I started doing it was because I was an extremely hyperactive person and I was causing trouble with it, so my parents put me into something to kind of wear off my energy.
Q: Has it worked?
A: I let my parents believe it has.
Q: What else do you like to do in your free time besides basketball and spelling?
I’m just really into history and mythology — I also like listening to music. Music is more than a hobby — I dribble with rhythm, and rhythm is a big part of me.
Q: Who are some of your favorite singers?
A: Oh, that’s easy! My favorite singer is Whitney Houston. … I really like “One Moment in Time,” especially now, because it encapsulates the process of being great at something … also, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” because it’s such a bouncy song.
Q: Are there any hobbies you still want to learn?
A: Um, no. [laughs]
I guess I want to learn how to cook … I really like Indian food.
Q: What else don’t people know about you that they might be surprised to learn?
A: Maybe a lot of people don’t know about my ability to do mental math — I can do really fast mental math, like two-times-two digits really quickly. Like, for example, say 35 times 42, I can immediately tell you is 1,470. … I really am good at that type of stuff, so I think a lot of people don’t know about that.
Q: How did you learn how to do that?
A: I don’t really know. I do a lot of things I don’t really know how I do.
Q: You were the first Black American to win the spelling bee. What do you want to say to other Black girls in particular who might want to follow in your footsteps?
A: Basically, do what you want to do, if you can. Girls in general have these restrictions on them, either because their culture says females still don’t do certain things, or just in general they themselves feel like, “I’m a girl, why would I do this.” Sometimes I feel like they feel restricted by themselves and also their cultures. So I just want to say, you can do this, and also get into [spelling], because it’s super fun.
Q: What’s next for you — what do you hope to still achieve going forward, considering that you’ve already achieved so much?
A: I don’t really know. I have so many wide, different interests — definitely one thing I definitely want to do is play basketball at Harvard. The main reason I want to go to Harvard is because that just opens so many doors. I have interests in being an NBA basketball coach or maybe working for NASA, and I also have some side interests in neuroscience and gene editing.