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Teen face: Petaluman's debate skills helping him build a future

  • Ricky Young, a senior at St. Vincent de Paul High School, took up debating during his sophomore year and has become one of the nation's top high school debaters. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

Ricky Young has managed a unique feat as a teenager. The Petaluma resident has navigated one of the most difficult passages of adolescence — dedication to an offbeat pastime, in his case debate — by making it both a path of rebellion and his step up in the world.

With persuasion befitting his stature as one of the nation's top high school debaters, the 17-year-old St. Vincent de Paul senior makes a strong case that he and his fellow orators are intellectual rabble-rousers, their studious approach to life no doubt "cool."

"The people who do debate, it's a different world," Young said, drawing a contrast with his other hobbies, including a number of team and individual sports. "They think critically about everything. There's a level of rebellion in them that is so much different than the usual teenager."

Young came late to the world of debate, starting as a sophomore, but he has already achieved great heights. Last year, he became the first St. Vincent junior to qualify for all three national championships.

He has won numerous individual speaker awards and taken first place, with his partner, in policy debate at two national competitions.

His coach at St. Vincent minces no words assessing Young's potential this school year.

"I think it is very likely that he will be the most successful debater we've ever had," said Laila McClay, who has overseen the school's top-ranked debate team for eight years. "It's going to be really fun."

The lofty spot has not come easily. Young's specialty, policy debate, entails nearly year-round study and competition focused on a single topic. This year, it is the merits of U.S. economic engagement with Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.

He kicked off his preparation this summer with a six-week camp at the University of Texas, Austin — essentially a crash course with many of the rivals he's likely to face this season, which starts next month and runs through June.

Long days of work are a given, said his stepmother, Trisha Young, admiring her stepson's dedication.

"It's morning, noon and night," she said. "He'll take the weekend off and just debate."

Young sees little burden in the demands of his schedule, which also includes a part-time job at Petaluma Market. He swam for St. Vincent as a junior and has also played football, basketball and golf at the school.

He's clear on his personal goals: A first-place finish at the national championships and a spot next year on a leading college debate team.

But he's also focused on mentoring the next wave of St. Vincent debaters, an act his coach says may be his greatest legacy.

Debate has given Young a "new kind of mentality" and drive, he said. "It's a way of tying everything together."

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