Palisades High School senior Julia Abbott placed second in the 2021 Optimist International Oratorical World Championships that was streamed live on July 23, earning $10,000 in scholarship money.
The Brentwood resident spoke on the theme “Healing the World with Optimism,” and placed behind Nayana Celine Xavier from Virginia. Third was Corinne Quynh Lan Marie Hoang from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
“The judges deliberated for two hours on who won, so I have a feeling first place and I were pretty close,” Abbott told Circling the News in an August 4 email.
“I wasn’t that nervous,” she said. “At the end of the day, I had spent so long dreaming about that moment, I didn’t have any expectations of winning – I was just honored to speak for such a distinguished audience.”
Among Abbott’s many admirable characteristics is her tenacity. She first competed in the Palisades Optimist contest as a Paul Revere eighth grader. In her speech that year, she said, “Optimism is the hope that things can get better, and they will. Optimism is constantly maintaining a cheerful outlook on life, even when life may not seem that cheerful.”
She won at the local level that year with a compelling story of her reaction to her mother’s near fatal traffic accident. “I grew more and more frantic, as I realized that I could stand to lose so many things in an instant,” Abbott said in her speech. “I realized how everything, every day, every moment was a gift. And that is when I swore to treat every gift with the deference it deserved.”
Advancing to the district contest, Abbott took third. She remembers, “At the time, I was devastated; but, at the end of the competition, while I was crying, an elderly lady came and told me she believed that I had what it took to win.”
As a freshman at PaliHi, Abbott placed second at district. “That was the year I really felt like I was starting to develop my own style of speaking,” Abbott told CTN. “I noticed the other competitors spoke with a polished air, and I started to refine my own abilities.”
She entered her sophomore year in 2020, but didn’t place at district, because like many, she had trouble adapting to Zoom. “I honestly didn’t know how to speak over a screen,” Abbott said, and then, “My WiFi cut out in the middle.”
She finished her speech but didn’t want her Optimist journey to end on that note, so “I came back again and now hold the record for most returns to the district contest” – and now she is also a “world champion.”
Susie DeWeese, chairperson of the Palisades Optimist Club oratorical contest, has worked with Abbott since her eighth-grade year.
“She is smart and works very hard. She has grown a great deal since her first contest,” DeWeese said. “When she began, she was very shy and didn’t move much. She listened to and incorporated every suggestion for growth. She has learned to give a speech the way you talk with a friend.”
Contestants are scored on poise, content of speech, overall effectiveness, delivery and presentation. Penalties are incurred if a contestant fails to announce the official topic, fails to identify non-original material, uses props and goes over or under the time limit of between four and five minutes.
The contest, which started in 1928, is designed for youth to gain experience in public speaking. The annual local contest is open to any contestant under the age of 18 who attends public and private school or is home-schooled. Locally, the first-prize winner receives $200.
The winner of the district competition receives a $2,500 scholarship and the International Regional Competition winner receives $5,000. Abbot earned a total of $17,750 in scholarship money.
Abbott is the daughter of Bruce and Michelle Abbot and has three younger siblings: Nicole, Jonathan and David.
“I would like to thank my wonderful mentor Susie DeWeese, Grandma and Grandma Susie. I want to thank my sister Nicole because she’s always the first person I read my speeches,” Abbot told CTN. “Thank you to my family for cheering me on at every competition.”
When Abbott is not teaching private dance lessons, she works at a store in Caruso’s Palisades mall and volunteers at her local public library. At school, she participates in mock trial, debate and a garden club — and now will start filling out college applications this fall. Needless to say, she’s optimistic about what lies ahead.