Thursday night a new Scripps National Spelling Bee champion was crowned. The word was murraya, and after the 14-year-old girl spelled it correctly without hesitation, she twirled and jumped for joy as she was told she was the winner of the 2021 spelling bee. Prior to the competition, the teen, who is from Louisiana, knew what was at stake.
Winning would not only mean she would get to add “Spelling Bee Champion” to her long list of accomplishments, but it would also mean she would become only the second Black champion – Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica won in 1998 – and the first Black American in the competition’s 96-year history.
She was also aware that teens and young children like her would be watching and could see that they too could follow in her footsteps.
So while the pressure was on, she was able to remain relaxed.
“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” she said.
And perhaps that’s because she’s had a lot of practice with being at the top of her game. She considers spelling to be a side hobby, basketball is actually her true passion.
She holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple basketballs at the same time and has dreams of playing in the WNBA or coaching in the NBA.
Zalia says it was her father, Jawara Spacetime, who got her in to spelling. He had been watching the spelling bee and was confident Zalia, who was able to solve complicated math problems in her head, would be able to compete in the bee.
And he was right!
“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,” her coach and the 2015 spelling bee runner-up, Cole Shafer-Ray said. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’”
After spelling “murraya”, Zalia went home with a trophy and a $50,000 prize, which she’s currently unsure how she will spend it.
“Well, when I won $10,000 for another spelling bee, I said I was going to stick it under the floorboards for security, but the $50,000, that would be a lot of dollars and I don’t think my floorboards could fit it, so I don’t know,” she said.