That high praise from Nader Helmy's coach is for an Apple Valley junior who has won two straight national speech titles.
Nader Helmy stood in front of the Apple Store at the Mall of America and watched his father unfurl his prayer mat.
The family had been ambling around the mall celebrating the end of the Islamic holiday Ramadan. Helmy recalls the discomfort he felt at the idea of praying in such a public place.
His father told him, "Don't ever be ashamed of who you are."
It's these compelling real-life experiences that Helmy laces into his competitive speeches. It's landed him on the national podium two years in a row. In June, the 17-year-old won first place in original oratory for the second year in a row at the National Forensic League Speech and Debate Tournament.
A two-time national champion leaves even the forensics community a bit speechless. The Apple Valley High School junior is just the third competitor in the tournament's 81-year history to win back-to-back national titles in original oratory. Helmy bested nearly 250 other national competitors each year.
"He is absolutely charming. He is absolutely endearing," said Joe Wycoff, who coaches the speech team along with his wife Pam. "The ultimate compliment we tell the kids is, 'I believe you.' When Nader talks, you just believe him. He has such a passion and conviction."
Original oratory is one of six main categories. Competitors select a topic based on a pervasive problem and then research and write a 10-minute speech. Helmy said his coaches assigned him to the category and it just felt right.
"I immediately fell in love with it. This is what speech is about: writing your own speech, revising it, persuading people," Helmy said.
Helmy uses lessons from his father to punctuate his speeches. Helmy's parents immigrated from Egypt and now live in Lakeville with their three sons.
"He is the depth finder," explained Helmy. "He has a deep-rooted sense of culture and heritage."
In 2011, Helmy spoke about society's devaluation of things that are old, including customs, belongings, even people. He used the prayer incident at the Mall of America to drive home the point.
This year, he spoke of how many people today surf through life.
"We have a superficial approach to life, Helmy said. "We don't bother to dig deep."
In the final round of national competition, Helmy and five other finalists gave their speeches in front of an audience of 4,000. It was also streamed online. His extended family in Egypt watched the speech and awards ceremony online, cheering and clapping.
"I was told some of my aunts were crying," said Helmy, describing his family as very supportive.
During the competition, Helmy stood alone on stage. There's no microphone stand or podium to lean on. Helmy said he drinks a Gatorade and goes over the speech in his head before taking the stage.
"The pinnacle of any career is to get on the stage, to be in the top six," Helmy said. "I was just dumbfounded and thankful."
Helmy wasn't the only local winner. District 196 is a powerhouse in speech. In total, 38 District 196 students qualified for the nationals.
Four of the six national finalists in original oratory are from the district. Patricia Alexis Reeves of Apple Valley High finished third, followed by Michael Ross of Eastview High School in fourth and Thomas Dyke of Eagan High School in sixth.
Ashesh Rambachan of Eastview High won the national title in international extemporaneous speaking.
"We have a very supportive community and administration. We have kids who are talented, but that's not enough. Our kids in 196 outwork everybody. Nader being a classic example," Wycoff said.
Helmy said he plans to compete in speech his senior year, but he's taking the summer off, playing video games, watching movies, reading and hanging out with friends.
He's not sure what he wants to do when he grows up or if he'll even continue competing in speech in college. But he said he's already taking advantage of that skill set.
"In job interviews, it's a nice thing to drop," Helmy said. "It gives me an edge."
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.