Photo credit: Heather Harvey/Scripps National Spelling Bee

The Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is one of two special honors bestowed at the Musial Awards. It recognizes an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship, and whose approach and accomplishments reflect the character attributes of Stan The Man.

Basketball. Juggling. Spelling. By age 14, Zaila Avant-garde had etched a mark on each. So to some people, Zaila is a prodigy, a once-in-a-lifetime young talent. To others, Zaila is a trailblazer, the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Zaila, though, sees herself as Everywoman: “Being a poor African American female, my whole goal is to inspire girls of color who say, ‘I can’t do this because I’m Hispanic or Asian or African American.’ I want them to know they can do what they want and overcome the myth.” Exuding such grace and poise through the pressure of competition and the accolades that followed has earned Zaila the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character.

Her father, Jawara Spacetime, seemed to set Zaila’s course by giving her the last name Avant-garde as an homage to an album by saxophonist John Coltrane. Since then, Zaila’s accomplishments have flowed as freeform as Coltrane’s jazz. Her first came in basketball, which she started playing at age 5.

“It grew out of me being a bit of a tough child to handle, a bit energetic,” she said. “My parents thought I should get into a sport, hoping to drain off energy.”

Zaila holds three basketball-related marks in the Guinness Book of World Records, including the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs and the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs. She also tied the record for most basketballs dribbled at once. Juggling was an offshoot of basketball, as she earned a silver medal in the junior division at the 2020 International Jugglers’ Association Championship.

But Zaila also loves words, intrigued by their origins. By 2018, she estimated that she read, “like 1,000 books. Spelling seems like it flowed naturally from all those words.”

For two years, Zaila devoted 7 hours a day of her homeschooling to preparation. Only when the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee grew near, though, did she learn that she could become the first Black American to win. Zaila discovered the story of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first Black American individual finalist at the Bee but wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers. She also learned of Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, the first Black to win in 1998.

“I really wanted to do something about this,” she said.

Zaila seized her opportunity on the word “murraya,” a genus of trees found in Asia and Australia. She came across the word in her research and connected it to the spelling of the last name of comedian Bill Murray, whose movie “Lost in Translation” “was a really big part of my childhood.”

Soft-spoken yet charismatic, Zaila has diplomatically worn the mantel of trailblazer. “It’s a bit of an honor, but it’s also bittersweet,” she said. “Why am I only the second of African heritage to win? There’s something wrong with the system.”

She seems poised to take on the system through other ventures. No longer training for the spelling bee, Zaila has a short-term void to fill but new ways “of having fun”  Spanish and piano lessons.

“The idea of making music is really empowering,” said Zaila, now 15. “And I love the idea of learning a language. I really want to listen to stories and read newspapers in Spanish to get their take on things.”

In the long term, she hopes to study gene editing and neuroscience, perhaps at Harvard, where she also wants to play basketball. Which brings her first love back into focus. As a homeschooled ninth grader, finding a high school team to play with proved challenging. “But I have an AAU team,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a hindrance, but we’ll find a way over it.”

From there, she’s aiming for NASA and/or the WNBA, followed by coaching in the NBA.

“That goes with my theme of female empowerment. Just because it’s a basketball association of men doesn’t mean that people in power have to be men,” she said. “No matter who you are or what you want to do, you can do it.”

“No matter who you are or what you want to do, you can do it.” Zaila Avant-garde