Indian American kids have dominated the Scripps National Spelling Bee championships, and with nine of 11 finalists in the 2021 competition, it appeared all but certain the streak would continue at the 93rd Bee July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney Resort in the Orlando, Florida, area.
Insert Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth grade basketball star of New Orleans, Louisiana, who, by the way, can spell better than anyone.
Avant-garde correctly spelled the word “Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals, to win the championship over Indian American Chaitra Thummala, 12, of Frisco, Texas. Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York, placed third in the Bee.
In Round 8, Thummala, who breezed through the first seven rounds, got tripped up on the word, “naroli oil,” leaving Avant-garde the opportunity to claim the prize.
Avant-garde, who prior to Thummala misspelling her word had easily spelled retene, then received the championship word, which she led to a jubilant celebration on the stage.
“I’m a bit surprised. … It was super exciting to win, because now I’m going to get a nice trophy, which is the best part of any win,” Avant-garde said on the stage following her win.
Avant-garde, the first African American and first competitor from Louisiana to win the Bee, credited the Indian American Shourav Dasari-founded Spellpundit as her secret method to getting ready for the Bee.
The win by Avant-garde put a halt to the reign of dominance by Indian American kids at the spelling contest, which spanned 12 bees dating back to 2008. The only thing that had previously prevented a championship in that span was the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the Bee last year.
In winning the Bee, Avant-garde won a $50,000 cash prize; a commemorative medal and the Scripps Cup, the official championship trophy of the Scripps National Spelling Bee; a $2,500 cash prize and reference library from the Bee's dictionary partner Merriam-Webster; and $400 of reference works, including a 1768 Encyclopedia Britannica Replica Set and a three-year membership to Britannica Online Premium.
Avant-garde emerged from thousands of spellers in three phases of rounds in a virtual format — preliminaries, quarterfinals and semifinals; all in June.
The semifinals pitted 30 spellers against each other in three rounds, leaving the final 11 to spell it out for national supremacy July 8.
Aside from Avant-garde and Thummala, the other spellers included Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York; Sreethan Gajula, 14, from Charlotte, North Carolina; Ashrita Gandhari, 14, from Leesburg, Virginia; Avani Joshi, 13, from Loves Park, Illinois; Vivinsha Veduru, 11, from Fort Worth, Texas; Dhroov Bharatia, 12, from Dallas, Texas; Vihaan Sibal, 12, from Waco, Texas; Akshainie Kamma, 13, from Austin, Texas; and Roy Seligman, 12, from Nassau, The Bahamas.
Right off the bat, in the first round of the championship rounds of the Bee, many of the Indian American competitors struggled with their respective words. Gajula, Gandhari, Joshi, Sibal and Kamma were all ousted, all finishing and tied for seventh place. Gajula misspelled trochiline; Gandhari was unable to spell the word platylepadid; Joshi stumbled on the word gewgaw; Sibal couldn’t navigate through torticollis; and Kamma was upended on the word heliconius.
The remaining contestants started the competition strong. Madini correctly spelled phylloxera; Veduri spelled archedictyon accurately; Bharatia was able to spell euxinic; and Thummala spelled shedu with ease. Additionally, Seligman and Avant-garde correctly spelled their words, advancing to the next round of the Bee.
The second round in the finals was a new element introduced to the competition in 2021 – the word meaning round, where the competitors would have 30 seconds to provide a meaning to the word given.
Madini received the word aphyllous, and correctly said it meant, “a tree lacking leaves”; Veduru said that saxicolous means “grows on rocks” accurately; Bharatia received the word nematode, and was able to determine that it means, “an elongated cylindrical worm”; and Thummala easily answered that bathyal is “the deepest part of the ocean.” Seligman and Avant-garde also advanced again, continuing the Bee with six contestants.
Through two rounds, Thummala and Seligman showed the most poise in advancing to Round 3. From Round 3 onwards, the Bee reverted back to its tried-and-true process of spelling words.
Seligman was up first in Round 3 and appeared to spelled his word easily, but, after review of the video — which took many minutes — he received the dreaded bell, and was sent off.
Madini received and spelled correctly the word theodolite to move on to the fourth round. Veduru looked stumped with the word chrysal, and with her time winding down to spell, she scrambled and was sent off after misspelling the word with an unknown origin. Bharatia received the word cloxacillin, but used an “o” where the “a” was, failing to advance to the next round. Thummala, who just moved with her family from San Ramon, California, to Frisco, Texas, was handed the word regolith, and, much like the first two rounds, easily spelled the word.
Avant-garde, meanwhile, moved on after spelling ancistroid with ease.
Heading into Round 4, only three spellers — Madini, Thummala and Avant-garde — remained. Veduru, Bharatia and Seligman each tied for fourth place.
Madini kicked off Round 4 with the word psychagogic and easily spelled through the difficult word; Avant-garde followed with the word duchesse and seemed unfazed, spelling the word correctly; and Thummala was given the word thanatophidia and, after asking all the right questions, spelled the word swiftly – as she had in all previous rounds.
The three advanced again to Round 5, with Madini starting with the word athanor, and for the first time looked genuinely stumped. She spelled it “athanore,” and was eliminated, finishing third.
Avant-garde went up second, receiving the word depreter, and seemed to know the spelling despite asking several questions about the word. She proceeded to spell it with east.
Thummala was next up, and had the word consertal. She asked several questions, and appeared to be confused with the spelling, but then spelled the word with ease, advancing to Round 6.
The final two of Thummala and Avant-garde featured two spellers who showed confidence throughout the contest.
Avant-garde was quick in spelling “fidibus” to ensure herself another chance to spell. Thummala, much like Avant-garde, spelled her word, “haltere,” with relative ease.
For Round 7, Avant-garde was perplexed with her word “nepeta,” to a point where she spelled half of it before asking another question, and then correctly spelling it. Thummala, showing little emotion, breezed through spelling “fewtrils,” sending the two remaining spellers to Round 8.
Avant-garde, after peppering the judges with questions, spelled retene without hesitation, putting the pressure on Thummala. The Indian American youngster received the word naroli oil, but misspelled it, leaving the championship stakes in the hands of Avant-garde, which she capitalized on.
While attendance was prohibited to spectators outside of family members, as the country continues to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic, one person was able to witness Avant-garde’s win: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.
The first lady took time before the Bee to greet the finalists and their families, congratulating them on reaching this point of the competition.
Spellers and Bee officials followed health and safety protocols, including physical distancing. Scripps also consulted on COVID-19-related health and safety protocol with medical experts at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center to facilitate a responsible experience for all.