HARVEY, La. – After six days, 18 hours, and 504 words delivered through 31 rounds of spelling, 14 year old Zaila Avant-Garde, a 7th grader from Harvey, LA, beat out 88 of the best young spellers in the country to win the first ever Kaplan Online Spelling Bee, hosted over the weekend in association with Hexco Academic.
The 2019 New Orleans regional spelling champion won with the word “Qashqai” (a migratory Turkic-speaking people of the Zagros mountains), after a hard-fought back-and-forth with runner-up Harini Logan, a 6th grader from San Antonio, TX.
Zaila’s preternatural poise as she confidently spelled words like ‘yponomeutid’ and ‘haraes’ impressed the judges, as did her speedy style.
Chaitra Thummala, a 5th grader from San Ramon, CA, placed third.
The level of talent in the competition made her experience particularly rewarding, Zaila noted, saying, “There were so many great spellers in the bee. To be able to compete against so many of the top spellers in the country was definitely a great experience. Even If I hadn’t won I would have been super proud of myself just for making it to the finals.”
Upon winning, she admitted to being “kind of confused for a second — I guess because I was a little shocked that I’d won. After that, I just felt a great sense of relief knowing that all of my hard work had led to the best possible outcome.”
That hard work included “a minimum of about 5 or 6 hours a day to study despite having a bunch of other stuff to do,” Zaila said. “I’d study wherever and whenever I could — whether it was while I was eating breakfast, riding in the car, or even while I was on a short break during basketball practice. But mostly I’d just sit at my desk — turn on a podcast, an old-time radio show, or some music — and study words as fast and as carefully as I could via the help of many different spelling resources.”
Not only is the newly crowned spelling champion a wiz with words — she’s a wiz on the basketball court as well. Zaila holds the Guinness World Record title for “the most bounce juggles in one minute,” which earned her a performance with the legendary Harlem Globetrotters and a cameo in a Steph Curry Under Armour commercial.
An avid reader whose heroes include Malala Yousafzai, Serena Williams and Coco Gauff, Zaila hopes to become an archaeologist one day and also aspires to play in the WNBA.
With the win, Zaila takes home $10,000 and a championship trophy. Harini earns $4,000; Chaitra wins $1,500. All three win free enrollments in Kaplan pre-college test prep courses as well.
“It was a hard-fought, well-deserved win for an inspiring young woman, and we couldn’t be happier for Zaila,” said Dan Strafford, Kaplan’s senior manager of new media, who produced the event. “We also couldn’t be prouder of all of the spellers, as this was an incredibly talented, impressive group. These spellers have worked so hard for a chance to demonstrate their skills, which is why we were glad to work with Hexco to give them this opportunity.”
Linda Tarrant, President of Hexco said, “Our Hexco team enjoyed every moment working with the Kaplan team to plan and execute this event. The spellers who participated were phenomenal. Their intensity as they fielded words showed each speller’s fierce determination. Their exuberant smiles and excitement as they conquered their words was a beautiful sight to witness.”
To others looking to pursue competitive spelling, Zaila recommends, “Study hard and enjoy the process. Being a competitive speller is such a meaningful and beneficial pursuit. While studying I’ve learned so much about linguistics, history, perseverance, and so many other things. The skills that you learn as a competitive speller are skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life.”
This was the first year of the Kaplan Online Spelling Bee, hosted in association with Hexco Academic, to provide an opportunity for the nation’s top spellers to compete online after the Scripps National Spelling Bee was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Kaplan press release content. Kaplan is a subsidiary of Graham Holdings Company. Established in 1938, Kaplan, a leader in the test prep industry, is a provider of educational and career services for individuals, schools, and businesses. Founded in 1967, Hexco is a publisher of competitive academic resources that has provided materials to help prepare National Spelling Bee contestants for 38 years.