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Spelling bee champion should inspire us all

It seems odd, amid the heat of a stormy, Midwest summer, to be thinking about spelling bees.

But then again, what hasn’t been odd about this year?

The 94th annual National Scripps Spelling Bee, usually held Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C., this year was held July 8 in Disney World.

Many of the kids competing hadn’t gotten there the usual way of working through middle school spelling bees and onto a stage somewhere in their hometowns to face off in a bee hosted by area media organizations.

Some of those local “feeder” bees went forward, but many others — like the one hosted by the Tribune Chronicle — were snuffed out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, many competitors still earned a chance to advance to the national bee via written tests and virtual feeder bee events.

In 2020, the annual Tribune Chronicle spelling bee was completed just under the wire as the pandemic was beginning to take hold.

The winner was Phillip Gleason of Bazetta. At age 8, Phillip, son of Phillip and Heather Gleason, was the youngest student ever to win the Tribune Chronicle bee.

Sadly, though, the national bee, set for Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C., was called off in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Still, Phillip earned a shot at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee and competed March 27 in the Scripps National Spelling Bee At-Large Region Two bee via Zoom. Unfortunately, he was eliminated after misspelling his third word.

Because of his young age, we have high hopes that he will be back again next year.

Meanwhile, fast forward to July 8, when students from around the nation took the stage for the national bee in this unorthodox year.

As always, the excitement was mounting. This year, there was special significance, and 14-year-old speller Zaila Avant-garde understood it completely.

The remarkable girl stood on the Lake Buena Vista, Fla., stage beaming with confidence.

Zaila was about to become the first African American ever to win the national bee. She knew the significance and later said she even thought of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first black finalist at the bee, but wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers.

Anyone who ever has followed the Scripps National Bee or watched the national telecast knows it has become a showcase often for dominance for kids of South Asian descent. And Zaila’s win this month breaks the streak of at least one Indian-American champion every year since 2008.

When she won, she twirled around with flair.

She appeared comfortable on stage — relaxed, even. But that was probably not a surprise to anyone who knew her.

Frankly, this wasn’t the first time Zaila of Harvey, Louisiana, had been in the spotlight. You see, she is a basketball prodigy who already owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously with hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA.

Spelling? Well, that was just a side hobby — even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day, reviewing, on average, some 13,000 words per day.

Former President Barack Obama tweeted: “Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila — your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you.”

First lady Jill Biden met with some of the contestants before the final round, telling them she admired their bravery and confidence.

Indeed, hard work, bravery and confidence are the keys to success in life.

Dozens of local spellers who have advanced to the national bee throughout the years would agree.

Interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” following her win, Zaila said she hopes her historic win will inspire other young black people in the United States to excel at spelling.

From where I sit, I think Zaila will be an inspiration to all people — no matter their age, their gender or their race — and no matter how big their dream.

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