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After Canceling Last Year's Competition, 2021 Spelling Bee Will Crown A Champ

NOEL KING, HOST:

The bee is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL DURNIL: Tonight on July 8 it is the 93rd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee finals.

KING: Executive director Michael Durnil is at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Disney World in Florida. Tonight 11 kids will compete there. And one will become this year's spelling bee champion. It's the first since 2019. The bee was canceled last year because of COVID.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Zaila Avant-garde is one of those 11 finalists.

ZAILA AVANT-GARDE: Mostly I've just been walking in kind of like a surreal dream since I got here.

FADEL: Avant-garde is a 14 year old from Harvey, La. She feels as ready as she can be for tonight's event, which makes sense because to prepare, Avant-garde has been studying about 13,000 words a day. That takes her around seven hours.

AVANT-GARDE: My favorite thing about words is, like, their definitions and stuff, when I know them - like, learning how a word connects to, like, a little historical fact or something.

KING: This is not her first time being really good at something. She's a three-time Guinness world record-holder for juggling basketballs. Clearly, she has range. The tournament rules have been rewritten for 2021 after something incredible happened at the last spelling bee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACQUES BAILLY: Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory.

KING: At the end of the finals in 2019, there were eight co-champions. So this time, if there isn't a clear winner after an hour and 50 minutes of competition, they will go into a spell off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DURNIL: And in 90 seconds, each speller will have the opportunity to spell as many words correctly as they can.

FADEL: Avant-garde remains undeterred.

AVANT-GARDE: I think it would be, like, really good entertainment, like, if it happens. As for spelling it myself, I think I'm pretty good at that. So it would be super exciting.

FADEL: And the likelihood that a spell off will happen is pretty high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DURNIL: We're thrilled to bring the bee back with all the excitement. People have been missing it. People have expressed a great amount of energy and excitement towards being able to see it play out again. It's quintessential Americana.

FADEL: Whatever happens, we are living for the buzz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO BENEVENTO'S "RISD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.