“I don’t know if you’ve ever gone on a 15-hour road trip but after the third hour it stopped being so fun,” Zaila said in an interview.
She drew from experience, having recently moved with her family from Harvey, La., to Washington, D.C. They moved to be closer to relatives and to help Zaila, who is home-schooled by her father, find a basketball team that would allow her to play competitively.
She said she had no idea where her parents put the $50,000 prize money that she won for taking first place at the Bee last year.
“It’s just in a savings account. Don’t ask me where,” she said. “It’s my nest egg for when I start out in my life.”
Zaila, a point guard with the Germantown Lady Panthers, a team within the Amateur Athletic Union, is confident she won’t need the money for college. She said she anticipated a basketball scholarship.
Her ambitions do not stop there, said her mother, Alma Heard, 38, who works for the State Department as a passport specialist.
“When people ask what does she want to do, I take a deep breath and tell them,” Ms. Heard said.
Zaila’s list of goals is long: play for the W.N.B.A., coach for the W.N.B.A., pursue a career in genetic engineering at NASA, and develop a way for human beings to withstand radiation so that they can survive longer in space.
Finally, Ms. Heard said, Zaila plans to be one of the first people to populate Mars.
She is used to racking up eye-popping achievements. By the time Zaila turned 12, she had claimed three Guinness world records for dribbling, bouncing and juggling basketballs and learned how to divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head.
Zaila’s father, Jawara Spacetime, 38, changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of the John Coltrane album, “The Avant-Garde,” said Ms. Heard. He also changed his name from Heard to Spacetime.
“I call him a mad scientist,” Ms. Heard said. She described her daughter as both a pragmatist and big dreamer — a cross between her parents.
“She really got the best of both worlds,” Ms. Heard said. “She’s very realistic and she understands the hard work that needs to go into things. And that’s what I respect the most about her.”
Zaila won the Bee by correctly spelling “Murraya,” a genus of flowering plants in the citrus family, Rutaceae. Before spelling the word, Zaila charmed the judges by asking if the word contained “the English word ‘Murray,’ which would be the name of a comedian?” referring to the actor Bill Murray.
Her victory was followed by a whirlwind of talk show appearances and requests from a variety of groups, including NASA and the Harlem Globetrotters, to participate in informal spelling bees. Zaila responded gamely when the Globetrotters asked her to spell apple.
On “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Mr. Murray appeared via a remote feed and challenged Zaila to dribble three basketballs while balancing on a foam roller and spelling the following word: portmanteau.
She nailed it.
The attention has not made her jaded.
“I basically have fun with everything I do,” Zaila said.
She said she was returning to the national bee again this year, this time as a guest. (Spellers can win only once.) She will attend the opening ceremony and the finals, where she is excited to watch the event from the perspective of the audience.
Zaila said another goal was to find a way to make the Bee more inclusive and accessible to Black and Latino children, who historically participate at lower rates than other students.
She said she had heard from Bee organizers in New Orleans who told her that more Black students, especially girls, were inspired by her story and now want to participate in spelling competitions.
It may be several years, however, before the public sees those students on the national stage, Zaila said.
“It takes a bit to get really good at spelling,” she said. “You don’t just wake up and decide, ‘I’m going to be a speller.’”