The last topic that I have chosen to write about in my “Ode to the FFA” blog series in order to celebrate National FFA Week literally puts a lump in my throat when I reflect back on it. It took blood, sweat, and tears~okay maybe no blood, but I think I did get a paper cut one time…but in the end, the hard work paid off.

I’ll spoil the ending for you on this one, because I’ve mentioned it several times before, but after three years of practice I earned the title of CA State FFA Prepared Public Speaking contest champion in 2009 in Selland Arena surrounded by a few thousand of my closest friends. It took hard work and lots of dedication to get to that point. But it was well worth it.

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So here is the story of a girl with a dream:

My sophomore year I had to choose a different CDE to participate in because creed speaking is only for Freshmen FFA members. I had become a member of the brand new livestock judging team and the public speaking contest was suggested by my FFA advisor before winter break. I was to choose a topic to write an 8 minute speech on. Whoa. Hold on. Back up. Eight whole minutes? How many pages is that even? And I have to memorize it too? No way jose. “Yes,” said my advisor. “You can do it.”

So after doing a little research, I settled on a topic about the National Animal Identification System, also known as NAIS. I wrote the speech and practiced some in front of the ag classes when time allowed, but didn’t really put much effort into researching the topic. Not enough anyway. The way the contest works is you write the speech, give the speech, and then after you give the speech the judges can ask you questions about your topic for 5 minutes. This portion of the contest is the money maker. If you know your stuff, the topic rather, the more you can prove you are prepared. Hence the title of the contest. Brilliant!

First came the sectional contest. The first and second place contestants from the section move onto the regional contest, where the first four from that contest move onto the state contest. The state contest then has three tiers to it. The preliminary round, the semi-finals, and the finals on the stage at Selland Arena. I’ve heard since I graduated the top two don’t compete on stage anymore, so that’s another thing I am VERY thankful to have been a part of!

Each year I would place either first or second in both the sectional and regional contests and move onto the state contest. However, each year I would get a cold right before State Conference and not be on my A-game. Hence the reason I never made it out of the preliminary round. But my senior year I was bound and determined not to let a sickness get in my way, so I took precautionary measures beforehand (lots of airborne) and brought my best face forward. But now I’m ahead of myself.

Junior year I made my speech about corn based ethanol. It was a good speech, but nothing really I could pour my heart and soul into. My senior year came around and BOOM. California had been in a drought for nearly 5 years, hence my speech topic was born:  water.

I knew 2009 had to be my year to win that speaking contest. I had always come so close, yet I was so far away. I was determined to make it all the way that year. I carefully prepared my speech and spent hours upon hours doing research. Keeping up with the water crisis in California and across the U.S. Every detail mattered. I could give that speech in my sleep, and sometimes I think I did. Anyone who had an ag class that winter and spring could recite my speech too, for the most part, by the time it was all said and done. My friends knew if I skipped even a word. I practiced that much. While they were a gracious audience I couldn’t help notice a glimpse of an eye roll every once in a while. But they braved through it. And for that I am forever thankful!

Sectional contest: 1st. Onto regionals. Regional contest:  1st. Onto state. The regional contest was sort of fun (funny) in the fact that I was the last person to give my speech that day. Meaning I had to stay in the holding room the longest. The setting at that contest was somewhat strange as they put us in a large room where others were free to roam in and out of. Kind of like a hospitality suite of sorts. By then my advisor and I had a dialed in our strategy. It was almost like I was getting ready for a WWE smack down. Gloves up. Mouth guard in. Bring it on. Did anyone in that room know more about water than I did? No. Can they ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to? No. Would I fail? No. Was I nervous? No way. Was I there to win? Yes. Very thankful to have my advisor in my corner throughout that competition. Literally.

Having not only prepared myself for the contest, but my immune system as well, I was ready to go. At the state contest awards ceremony that afternoon I discovered that I had made it out of preliminaries. That was when I knew I had a chance. However, at that same time I had decided to run for State FFA Office. My regional FFA advisor pulled me aside and said, “You can do one. Not both.” He meant mentally. I needed to choose which one I wanted most. I told him, “State office.” No problem. I had also wanted to serve as a state officer ever since I was a freshman. But what I didn’t know was that my heart had a different answer. The answer that would prove to be the best for me in the long run. I was cut from the second round of interviews for state office. This gave me almost a full day to really prepare to go head to head in the finals for the speaking contest. It was a blessing in disguise. And one that would allow me to become the CA State Beef Ambassador the following weekend. Which eventually led me down a completely different path than I was expecting. One that I now couldn’t live without.

When I asked my advisor for advice going into the semis he said, “Do what you always do. You will succeed.” I went into semis with confidence. This was my chance. My one shot. I couldn’t blow it.

That evening we discovered that I had done it. I was in the top 2 and would present my speech to thousands of FFA members, advisors, and guests in Selland Arena on Monday afternoon. I called my parents and they came down to Fresno to watch.

That morning I spent time researching the absolute newest water facts known to man. Handily for me, there had been a strike at the California Aqueduct and the news had provided a nice little synopsis video on it. I watched it and prepared for the stage. I remember bringing a hand towel from the hotel over to the arena so I could wipe my hands that were sweating gallons of water. Ironic.

We did mic tests and the other girl I was competing against went first. Her topic was COOL. Country of Origin Labeling. A popular topic over the past couple of years. I nervously listened and waited my turn.

As I heard my name called and walked on stage to give my speech, I gazed out at the thousands of folks who would spend the next 13 minutes learning all I had researched about water and water conservation. Half way through my speech my mouth got so dry, my upper lip stuck to my teeth. I got through the speech and asked for questions from the judges. It was go time.

My gloves raised, eyes focused. I cut to the left answering the first few questions and swerved to the right finishing up thoughts on a couple more. The five minutes was almost up. Then they thought they had me cornered. Upper cut. Choke hold. A question about the strike that had happened that morning that I had just finished watching a video clip on. Bingo. Answered. Three taps. Done.

We had to wait in agony through the whole rest of the session before the scores were tabulated to learn who had won. They called us both to the stage and my name was called second. Meaning I was the new Prepared Public Speaking Champion. Wow! What a feeling! Words truly cannot describe. I proudly shook Graham Blagg’s hand as he handed me the plaque and ribbon and I smiled as big as I could out to my parents, my fellow FFA members, and my advisor who had helped me get that far, my brain racing a mile a minute. I believe I slept great that night.

I went on to practice for the national contest where I represented California in Indianapolis. I ended up earning a Silver Emblem award in the top 10 in the nation with my speech, and will always be grateful for the trip I was able to take with my dad, my FFA advisor, and some fellow chapter members to the National FFA Convention.

Every once in a while my speech will come on my iPod. I recorded myself so I could memorize my speech quicker. Usually I just hit the skip button, but the other day I listened to the whole thing and reminisced like it was yesterday.

I listened to myself say, “Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers said, “When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.”

Thank you for reading the blogs in my ode to the FFA to celebrate National FFA Week. The passion we gain in the FFA never leaves us. Though it may lay dormant at times, it’s still there ready to fight for you. With you. In order to make the world a better place, share our own stories about agriculture, and fight for what is right, we cannot let our own wells of passion run dry. Only then will we know the true worth of what we have lost.

Never lose the passion. It will always live on.

Thank you.

~Mal the Beef Gal

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