A stitched mouth didn't stop 16-year-old Kerri Ruttenberg of Columbia from winning the American Legion's National Oratorical Contest and collecting $21,500 in scholarship money last week.
Ruttenberg, a junior at Hammond High School, is Maryland's first female winner of the national speech contest.
"I can't describe what it was like," she said after returning from Friday's finals in Baton Rouge, La. "It took a while for it to sinkin. Obviously, I was thrilled."
Ruttenberg, one of two juniors competing, defeated high school seniors from across the continental United States, France, Germany and Puerto Rico to win the scholarship money, a large plaque and several medals.
Ruttenberg is the fourth national winner from Maryland in the contest's 55-year history. Male students won in 1982 from Loyola High in Baltimore and in 1988 and 1989 from Calvert Hall in Towson.
"The money was nice, the plaque wasnice and the medals were nice," said Ruttenberg, who entered the competition as a challenge. "I think just the honor of being named the top speaker in America was probably my greatest reward in all of this."
Although, she hasn't picked a college yet, she said the scholarship money will pay for her to study psychology. She wants to become acriminal lawyer.
Ruttenberg's quest to victory began Feb. 19 whenshe won a local competition sponsored by American Legion Post 156, which meets in Ellicott City. She would later win five more competitions, including the nationals.
A hitch came a day after the post competition when she learned she had a cyst-like disease in her soft palate. Doctors had to remove it surgically.
For a week and a half, she said she had "to talk with a lot of pain (but to) make sure I didn't split my stitches." She added that people praised her speech but told her "you could've smiled more."
During the competition she said: "My greatest fear was getting the hiccups in the middle of my speech -- the speaker's nightmare. But it never happened."
In December, she began writing her 9-minute, 40-second speech titled "Amending the Constitution: The Right to Rewrite." It explains why the U.S. Constitution should change as generations change.
Contest rules require contestants to give an 8- to-10-minute speech on the Constitution and a 3- to-4-minute extemporaneous speech on several of its articles.
Ruttenberg said she conducted a lot of research because the five judges were extremely knowledgeable. She practiced her speech before her mother, Sharon Stewart, at least an hour each day.
"I'm elated," Stewart said. "I knew she had it in her."
But Stewart conceded:"This last round I didn't know if she'd make it" because of the "terrific competition." Ruttenberg defeated three finalists from California, Michigan and Tennessee.
Whenever the judges announced her name, Ruttenberg said, "I'd get . . . butterflies in my stomach, but I'd settle down."
During the grueling competition, Ruttenberg chose anunorthodox strategy: to go uncoached.
That was "phenomenal," saidWilliam Lowman, a past judge and chairman of the legion's North Central District in Maryland.
"She's fantastic," Lowman said. "Her method of preparation was unusual. She was not trying to memorize but was trying to grasp a concept and then speak extemporaneously.
"She had a casualness, but yet a forceful manner," he said. "She's one in a million."