The Loop

Dual-Sport Athlete

Zaila Avant-Garde, age 14, is the greatest American since Abraham Lincoln

July 09, 2021

You may think that headline is a little hyperbolic, but you know what? I'm writing a blog post about a 14-year-old, I'm doing it willingly, so all bets are off. Also, it's true. I scoured 160 years of American history for truly great people, and these two are on a level of their own. Extend it to the whole world, and Rafa Nadal joins them, but in the U.S. it's just them.

What the hell am I talking about? Folks, I'm talking about Zaila Avant-Garde, the Harvey, LA native who just won the Scripps Spelling Bee last night by calmly laying waste to a field of the smartest kids in America. She's the first African-American speller to do so, she knew almost every word she was given cold, and in the process she peppered the judges with questions on etymology that ranged from deadly accurate to wildly speculative but also strangely correct. The best of them all came on the championship word, "murraya," a kind of tree, when she asked if it contained the root "Murray," as in an English name, like the name of a comedian. She was trying to get the judges to say it was derived from Bill Murray! She was dropping a pretty great joke as she made history! Watch that here, plus her incredible celebration:

Re: that celebration, it would be good with no context, but when you consider that the average winning speller stares like a deer in the headlights at the moment of victory, so that you almost instantly feel sorry for them, it becomes even more special.

Even if we stopped there, it would be enough to declare her amazing based on the few facts we know:

1. Named "Zaila Avant-Garde" (her dad changed her last name, per the Times, in homage to John Coltrane)

2. First African-American bee champion

3. Dad's name is, no joke, Jawara Spacetime

But that is not all. That is not nearly all! Because folks, Zaila Avant-Garde is a straight up baller. And I mean that literally, as in, she's insanely good at all things basketball. She owns three Guinness World Records for dribbling/juggling basketballs, and you can see her in action in this video:

Here's a longer, even more mind-blowing video:

And it's not just novelty dribbling. Watch her ball! And keep in mind she's in seventh grade when this footage is taken:

I'm no scout, but that seems to be really incredible.

As for spelling, ZAG (as a friend noted, Gonzaga should offer her a scholarship immediately just for the branding) is incredibly unique among her peers in that she only started two years ago. The story of how she got there is equally as nuts as everything else we know about her:

Zaila, who just finished eighth grade in her hometown, Harvey, La., showed a prowess for spelling at 10, when her father, who had been watching finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN, asked her how to spell the winning word: marocain.

Zaila spelled it perfectly. Then he asked her to spell the winning words going back to 1999. She spelled nearly all of them correctly and was able to tell him the books where she had seen them.

“He was a bit surprised by that,” Zaila said in an interview before the finals.

But she did not start spelling competitively until two years ago, when she asked her parents if she could compete in the regional spelling bee.

And then there's stuff like this:

In 2018, she appeared in a Steph Curry commercial that showcased her skills. She also learned how to speed read and figured out that she could divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head, a skill she said she had a hard time explaining.

“It’s like asking a millipede how they walk with all those legs,” said Zaila, who has three younger brothers.

I want to leave you with a quote from her coach that appeared in the ESPN story and I think sums up this wunderkind better than anything else could. It's about his first meeting with her, and his shock at her skill:

"Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years," Shafer-Ray said. "It was like a mystery, like, 'Is this person even real?'"

This story is almost too good to be true, and while I don't know very much in this world, I'm very confident saying this: We have not heard the last of Zaila Avant-Garde.