Four students prepare for upcoming National Speech & Debate Tournament


Maddie Cooke

With a trophy in hand, speech and debate coach Cara Borgsmiller congratulates senior Cheryl Ma. She alongside fellow senior Ryan O’Connor qualified for the 2018 National Speech & Debate Tournament in public forum debate after going undefeated at the Eastern Missouri district tournament. “It was really exciting. It was different than it is for most people because Ryan and I were undefeated the whole tournament, so they decided [we qualified] automatically even before the actual awards were announced since we were the only undefeated team,” Ma said. “We found out before the actual awards ceremony, so it relieved a lot of pressure because usually people are very anxious during awards.”

After posting a combined 13-1 record at the Eastern Missouri district tournament, junior Gokul Venkatachalam and senior Haran Kumar qualified for the 2018 National Speech & Debate Tournament in policy debate while seniors Ryan O’Connor and Cheryl Ma made the cut in public forum debate.

“I knew immediately [that we won at districts]. I was pretty excited because we were really tired,” Venkatachalam said. “We knew that we would win after that round. We were just really happy. We hugged all our coaches and teammates.”

Both policy and public forum entail two partners debating a specified topic against an opposing team. O’Connor and Ma are no strangers to nationals, having advanced to last year’s tournament as well. Ma attributes her competitive edge this time around to the experience she acquired a year ago.

“Nationals is very different because people debate totally differently in different districts. That was really helpful because it really helped me gain perspective on different ways people debate, different strategies,” Ma said. “When I came back to this district I wasn’t just doing what everyone else was doing. Ryan and I had a bigger perspective so we were able to debate differently than other people.”

Meanwhile, Venkatachalam is set to make his first appearance at nationals. Unlike the three seniors, he hopes to use the opportunity to position himself for a stronger senior season of his own next year.

“My experience will be a little bit different because I’ll be pretty confident that I can go back again next year. It’ll be more trying to make some good memories with my senior friends that I won’t be able to see for a while and just enjoying it,” Venkatachalam said. “What I’m hoping to get out of it is mainly getting the knowledge necessary so I can do even better next year. As my first time, I don’t really have that much time to prepare, but once I know what it’s like, I have an entire year to get better and do well at nationals as a senior.”

This is the last tournament I’ll be spending with a lot of the East [Missouri] people. It’s a good opportunity to have fun with them. I’m not going in expecting glory.”

— senior Haran Kumar

When facing the adrenaline rush produced by rapid-pace rounds at the national level, both teams concurred that establishing synergy between debate partners can be the key factor separating victory from defeat.

“We became pretty good friends mainly as a result of being partners. Our debating styles really complement each other well,” Kumar said. “We grew into our roles. He became a much better speaker to compensate for my lack of ability in that area.”

Because public forum adopts an entirely new topic area each month, the looming national tournament in June will be the only time Ma and O’Connor are ever tasked with debating about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Policy debate, on the other hand, revolves around a single yearlong resolution concerning federal government funding and regulation of education, freeing up more time for Venkatachalam and Kumar to acclimate to a foreign debate environment in lieu of conceiving new arguments.

“The timeline for our preparation is really reading up more on the esoteric things that happen at the national circuit level that we don’t do and getting used to the faster style of debate at nationals,” Venkatachalam said.

As June 17, the opening day of the tournament, approaches, Ma remains confident in her and O’Connor’s ability to perform despite what she admits are extremely high stakes.

“Honestly I feel more [pressure this year] because last year was about getting to nationals, doing well at districts was hard. This year it’s about trying to get as far as we can at nationals because we were pretty sure we could do well [at districts],” Ma said. “We finish each other’s sentence in rounds, we know exactly what the other person is thinking. We’ve gotten a lot closer as friends because of it.”

The National Speech & Debate Association quantifies student debaters’ success by awarding merit points for wins and losses and instituting a tiered Honor Society, but Kumar, a recipient of the prestigious ‘Outstanding Distinction,’ believes the trip to nationals transcends the pursuit of trophies and accolades.

“I’m just going to enjoy the experience. I’m not going in expecting any trophies, I’m just in it for having fun with my friends, meeting new people,” Kumar said. “This is the last tournament I’ll be spending with a lot of the East [Missouri] people. It’s a good opportunity to have fun with them. I’m not going in expecting glory.”