COLUMBIA — Lights, cameras and a sea of faces stared at Ashwath Kumar as he took the stage Sunday for the 77th Annual American Legion National Oratorical Contest in Indianapolis.
The Hickman High School senior wasn't nervous; he's an old pro at public speaking. He's been delivering speeches since middle school — but this was the first time $18,000 was on the line.
He'd practiced his oration, "This Great House," countless times — to his parents, his teachers, anyone who would listen. When he ran out of listeners, he practiced in the mirror. He had his delivery down pat. The only variable was the audience.
Sunday was the eighth time he formally delivered the speech, and his first as Missouri's state champion. He faced 52 champions from other states and territories, and 50 were eliminated before the final round. Kumar delivered his nine-and-a-half minute speech, then waited for the final decision.
The judges took the stage, and it was official: he won.
"It was fulfilling," he said. "Definitely."
The American Legion oratorical contest challenges young Americans to improve their communication skills, and all contestants must speak about some aspect of the U.S. Constitution.
Kumar wrote his speech in a single afternoon, in "just a wave of inspiration."
"I just sat down and wrote down all my thoughts," Kumar said. "Practicing took hours, but the writing only took a day."
Kumar said what he likes about public speaking is the subjectivity of it all.
"It is more of an art than a science," Kumar said. "It is not something you can ever perfect, just something you can keep improving on."
Kumar has participated in a number of academic competitions. He won the Optimist International Oratorical Contest when he was 12 years old. He has also been a semifinalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology and the Intel Science Talent Search for research he did on quorum-sensing molecules.
In the future, Kumar said he is considering getting involved in politics after pursuing a career in law or medicine — but for now, he's happy to just relax.
"It's a relief," Kumar said. "After all these months of practice, I could represent my school and my state to the best of my ability."
Supervising editor is Adam Aton.