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On Zaila Avant-garde, the New National Spelling Bee Champ

Zaila Avant-garde - Photo by Scott McIntyre for the New York Times

Along with a liveblog of the last few rounds of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, The New York Times has an excellent profile of its champion, 14 year-old Zaila Avant-garde from New Orleans, Louisiana. (One fun fact: Zaila’s last name is an homage by her father to John Coltrane.)

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.

This is a heck of a party trick that kids with hyperlexia can do; I can do it, and unsurprisingly, hyperlexia (and possibly a photographic memory) is an advantage for competitive spelling.

But Zaila’s talents don’t end there:

A gifted basketball player, she set three Guinness world records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously (six basketballs for 30 seconds); the most basketballs bounces (307 bounces in 30 seconds); and the most bounce juggles in one minute (255 using four basketballs). With her victory on Thursday, she also became the first winner from Louisiana.

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 can… kinda do this? (I can’t really do this very well. The point is, all of this is very impressive!)]

Zaila just graduated eighth grade, and she’s the first African-American spelling champ in the bee’s history. She’s got skills and drive to spare.