By Jessica Bledsoe
Standing in front of the judge”s panel with only five minutes of preparation swimming through his head, the task of speaking off the cuff was a simple one for a Utah Valley State College student.
Kenny Downing of Orem spoke on what makes a champion, a topic that became his reality when he took home gold in the national SkillsUSA extemporaneous speaking competition.
“I was very confident that I nailed it,” said Taylor of his speech. “I had no reservations whatsoever.”
SkillsUSA is a program which offers college and high school students an opportunity to gauge their skills in varied trade school specialties such as carpentry, nail care, commercial baking, plumbing and team problem solving. The June competition in Kansas City annually fills an arena the size of 11 football fields.
“You have some people replacing brakes and troubleshooting car problems and others doing police training with crime scene investigation,” said Darin Taylor, UVSC”s director of SkillsUSA.
Taylor was not surprised by Downing”s success.
“He could sell an Eskimo a freezer,” Taylor said. “They want someone who can do it off the cuff like that.”
At 43 years old, Downing fits the profile of non-traditional student in multiple ways. Downing”s typical day follows the David Bly quote he opened with in his competition speech: “Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven”t planted.”
Downing plants daily by working full time in marketing for UVSC”s aviation science department, taking classes online for his own aviation degree and fitting in his required hours of flight. With his wife Claire also working and taking classes, the Downings” days are full, but both have been able to maintain a grade point average above 3.0.
“I”ve had my neighbor ask us when we were ever home,” Downing said. “My life is very very busy. It takes a lot of discipline.”
Downing”s Jehovah”s Witness congregation fills the few time gaps in his evening and weekends. Downing gives full credit to the congregation”s theocratic ministry school for his success in the competition. The school teaches congregation members how to articulate their spiritual message while traveling door-to-door and speaking in public.
“Basically, we are teaching extemporaneous speaking,” said Downing, leader of the Tuesday night school.
Downing”s wife has also been guiding him in speaking for years, pointing out unnecessary pauses, unclear sentences and “word whiskers” that distract the audience from the message. They perfected his speaking but did not practice specifically for the competition.
“In the competition, they come at you from any direction,” Downing said. “You can”t prepare a speech. You can only prepare your thoughts and how you want to approach it.”
In addition to Downing”s gold, UVSC took home honors in 10 categories, surpassing every other college and university for the fourth year in a row. With respected roots in vocational training, UVSC”s programs offer people that prefer hands-on activities practical training, Taylor said.
“A person that has a vocational training skill becomes an immediately productive person in society,” Taylor said. “Without those people, could you imagine what out lifestyle would be like? It makes you think maybe the world is not going to heck in a hand basket.”
Downing said he agrees.
“It is a huge, huge feather in the cap of this area that we have UVSC,” Downing said. “UVSC is a huge asset to this community. Not a lot of cities have the training they are getting at UVSC.”
Downing said he plans to prove the merits of both his congregation training and UVSC education at next year”s competition.
“My goal is to repeat as national champion next year,” said Downing, with a slight grin while fingering the gold medal around his neck.