Debate team has emotional return to nationals


Courtesy of Kristina Humphrey

Seniors Gokul Venkatachalam, Kristina Humphrey and Luke Donovan pose with their plaques from the district tournament. Venkatachalam will go to nationals in the “Policy Debate” event and Humphrey and Donovan will compete in the “Duo Interpretation” event. “I’ve never been to the national tournament before,” Humphrey said. “I know it’s very competitive because you’re competing against a bunch of national qualifiers. I hope we can do well, and I doubt we’ll make the final stage, but we’re going to try as hard as we can.”

After a successful districts tournament, the speech and debate team will send six students to compete in three different events at the national tournament in Dallas this June. The events of last year have made this years road to nationals particularly emotional for the team.

“Considering the district qualifies [around] 40 entries to the tournament, to have six of those, out of the 30 schools that compete, is a pretty big deal,” Speech and Debate coach Cara Borgsmiller said. “It’s one of those years where of course we had the chance to do well, but given everything that happened to our team over the summer with the loss of Haran [Kumar] and trying to figure out what that meant for all of us and what competition would even look like…it was overwhelming to see us not just rise to that but exceed that.”

The loss of alumnus Haran Kumar at the start of the summer of 2018 was especially difficult on the speech and debate team. He passed two days before the team was set to depart for nationals. The team declined to compete and remained in St. Louis to mourn the loss of their friend and teammate.

“Because it happened at the beginning of the summer, it gave everyone the time to deal with it on their own,” Borgsmiller said. “However, it left me really uncertain as to how people were going to react when they were finally back in the same context, back in [the debate] classroom and back at competitions.”

Borgsmiller’s concerns were not unfounded, but the team coped through the difficult circumstances.

“It was really heartbreaking for everyone,” senior Kristina Humphrey said. “Especially after the season we had. It was a pretty tough season for a lot of people. But it really unified us as a team because in the past our team has been chaotic. [Recovering from his passing] really strengthened the team. We miss Haran dearly, but working through that brought us together a lot.”

Promoting mental health became a strong focus for the debate team.

“I think the team has done a really important job promoting mental health,” senior Gokul Venkatachalam said. “I think everyone is aware of what the real ways are to promote mental health, not to wear masks or positive psychology that everyone else is promoting, but the real deep systemic issues that plague people regarding mental health.We became very involved in Every Child’s Hope because of this.”

Venkatachalam and his debate partner junior Jon Ma will be competing in the policy debate event, the same event that he was set to compete with Kumar at the 2018 national tournament.

“He’s always on my mind,” Venkatachalam said. “Especially this year, when competing in debate. I always felt like I was walking in [Haran’s] footsteps because [my] partner situation [with Jon] was very similar to my partner situation with Haran, where I was the inexperienced junior walking in with Haran who was experienced. Every round, I felt like I was reliving it, except now I was in Haran’s position. At this point, he’s still on my mind, he’s influenced my skills as a debater, and he’s the only reason why I’m good at debate. Using that knowledge he’s given me, I hope to do well at nationals.”

While the team feels that bringing six debaters to Dallas is an accomplishment, it’s not unheard of on the speech and debate team; the reason it feels momentous for the team is much greater than a simple victory at districts.

“I don’t know if it’s a return to form this year for the team, but it was definitely one of the more overwhelming district tournaments I’ve been to,” Borgsmiller said. “Only because I spent a lot of time thinking about [Haran] at the tournament. It was one of the last real competitions he went to with us. When everyone did so well, it was emotional, I think, in a good way. Had I talked about this back in October, it wouldn’t have been in a good way, but I think it has been a positive outcome for the kids on this team.”

The debaters are excited for another shot at the top and to take the memory of Kumar with them.

“I know we’re really excited because it’s a fresh start,” Humphrey said. “We can go and compete and spread our message for everything. While it does bring bittersweet memories, it’s going to be a good experience, and everyone is very excited.”