National Spelling Bee champ spends time with Washington-Marion students 

Published 8:16 am Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Zaila Avant-garde, 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion and a Guinness Book World Record holder, visited Washington-Marion High School on Tuesday as part of her statewide speaking tour. The champion 15-year-old and her mother Alma Heard shared insights into Avant-garde’s studies, upbringing and life’s goals with Washington-Marion’s Ed Rising students, cheerleaders and girls basketball team.

“When I train, what motivates me is when I’m thinking of girls like like you,” Avant-garde said.

Heard confirmed her daughter’s words saying, “She’s doing it for ya’ll. It doesn’t matter what comes up. When she stepped on that stage she said she wanted to be spelling bee champ for everyone who was ever told you shouldn’t be able to do something.”

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Students asked Avant-garde about her transformation into a spelling champ and basketball prodigy. “I have a love of words. I have my whole life…When I saw that a spelling bee was a way for me to do something based on my love of words, it immediately excited me.”

She began playing basketball at 5 years, introduced to the sport by her parents. “I was a highly energetic child and my parents wanted to help me drain off some of my energy,” she said laughing.

Her progression into a basketball prodigy, holding two world records for her ability to dribble multiple basketballs at a time, was a combination of her father’s coaching and practice. “My father started me off with two and three (basketballs) for hand-eye coordination. From there I just kind of expanded on that idea. Obviously, if I could dribble six basketballs, I could easily dribble one basketball,” she said.

While there’s no “one thing” that prepared Avant-garde to take home Scripps’ top honors, she did say her love of reading and studying etymology were tremendous aids. With the help of a coach and online software to help her study, she said commonly misspelled word lists and flash cards are also tools she uses to succeed.

Regardless of the study tool, one of the most important things she’s learned along her journey is to not overthink the spelling of words. “Go with your gut feeling…As in an educated gut feeling. You know how this language works, whatever it is, so that’s your gut feeling. Just don’t overthink it.”

Only in the ninth grade, Avant-garde has been offered multiple scholarships to universities across the state and even the nation. She plans to study gene editing or neuroscience with the hopes of working for NASA or being an NBA head coach one day.

No matter what’s next for Avant-garde, Heard emphasized that it will be solely her daughter’s decision. “Everything Zaila does it’s because she wants to do it,” she said.

“She’s tried a few different things and it didn’t work out. But now, Zaila loves what shes’s doing. If you never have to force a child to do something, it’s going to be so great when it happens…So, do what you love. I promise that thing will send you to a whole new level.”