After correctly spelling "murraya" — "a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals" — Zaila Avant-garde was crowned the winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Earlier in the Thursday night event, the 14-year-old from New Orleans also aced spelling "depreter," "ancistroid," and "retene." Chaitra Thummala, 12, of San Francisco came in second place, with Bhavana Madini, 13, of New York City finishing in third. Avant-garde is the first African American to win the bee, The Washington Post reports; in 1998, Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica became the first Black champ.
The bee was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, for the first time since 1945, and safety was paramount this time around. The preliminary rounds were all held virtually, and during the in-person finals in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the participants all wore masks when not at the microphone, their chairs socially distanced.
Most of the people in the small audience were the spellers' relatives, with one guest of distinction — first lady Jill Biden, who shared that she was "too scared to get up in front of everyone" during her sixth grade spelling bee. The kids competing this year "have so much courage," she said, "and I really admire them."