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Debate team wins national championship

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Photo Courtesy David Worth

By Bonnie Zhao     3/23/21 11:24pm

Rice University’s debate team won the national championship in the National Parliamentary Debate Association 2021 Championship Tournament. It won first place in Overall Season Sweepstakes, Open (Varsity) Division Season Sweepstakes and Overall Tournament Sweepstakes, according to David Worth, the director of the team.

“The sweepstakes awards measure squad performance overall,” Worth said. “We haven't won this one in a couple of decades. It's very hard to win, to be honest … as a team, as a program, it takes a good number of years. You need a lot of hard work, and frankly, you need a little bit of luck as well.”

Seniors Amy Lin and Joel Abraham are runner-up national champions, placing No. 2 after a final round appearance, and seniors Annie Chen and Maddy Scannell reached the quarterfinals. Junior Kia Witt and first-year student Max Renteria reached double-octafinals. Scannell and Lin were also selected for the NPDA All-American Squad, recognized by their commitment to community service, academic excellence and competitive success, according to the team’s press release.



Worth, who has been president of NPDA for two years, said that the organization started to plan and restructure the tournaments to accommodate COVID-19 since last summer.

“The premise of speech and debate is being in the same room, mastering those rhetorical skills in person,” Worth said. “Practice also became very different. We had to redo our team process, something that we had spent years and years perfecting and structuring. You just had to do it all from the ground up … [the pandemic] was more than a challenge. I mean, it defined the year.”

Lin, a Hanszen College senior, said that there are pros and cons to having to debate online.

“Of course I miss a lot of the in-person components,” Lin said. “Spending nights together at the hotels, bonding time to and from the airport, those moments were missed. You also can't meet competitors in real life, and there's sort of limitations in terms of speed and clarity — you have to dial [your speed] down and go a little bit slower. But I'm still glad that they were able to transition to an online format because it meant that we could still compete this year.”

According to Chen, a Martel College senior, the Rice debate team was especially prepared for transitioning to online platforms. 

“Even though there's a lot of the energy that comes from seeing people in person and you meet friends on the circuit, I think that [our team] is probably the best-adapted team out of everybody who's competing just because we have a small team and we already work very well with each other and our coaches, Dave and Shannon,” Chen said. “Obviously we would prefer it if things went back to in-person like they normally do. But as it is, I think we've done what we can to [adjust] to the circumstances.”

According to Lin, a Hanszen College senior, the team was confident going into the tournaments, but the results still managed to surpass their expectations. 

“I think we were all ready to really succeed this year because there had been a lot of building up to this moment,” Lin said. “Throughout the year, we were winning a lot, and it felt really good to win even though we had been thrown this challenge of having online to beat our way. But we handled it really well. We really succeeded in surpassing the expectations that we had set for ourselves.”

Scannell, a Martel senior, said that she believes one of the biggest reasons for her team’s success this year is because of how well-rounded they are.

“I think what did it for us is that we had not just one kind of exceptional team, but multiple teams that are really good at lots of different things,” Scannell said. “And we then can therefore pick up lots of different rounds and wins in different types of judges. For example, there are other schools [that] have debate teams at or above our caliber, but those are just individual partnerships. So the fact that we have so many of us who can achieve and win rounds is what pushed us over the edge this year.”

According to Worth, the speech and debate team will go through significant changes next year with the departure of the seniors.

“We're losing four seniors on the debate side and three seniors on the speech side,” Worth said. “And they've all been just incredible in terms of the work that they put in and the accomplishments they've garnered. They are truly among the very best we've ever had, and we've had some incredible people.”

Despite the number of students graduating this year, Worth said that the remaining members have thrived this season and are more than prepared to take the lead.

"I have every confidence that our remaining competitors will take over the reins and do really well next year," Worth said. "I'm extremely optimistic.”

Scannell said that she believes when their time comes, the juniors will lead the team to another great season.

“I'm super confident that [they’re] gonna crush it,” Scannell said. “We have two complete junior partnerships that both did incredibly well at the national tournament [this year]. So they're going to be a force to be reckoned with. The Rice team also has a long history graduating out seniors and everyone's like, ‘What are we going to do?’ And then something incredible happens the next year. People just keep getting better and better. So I'm super excited to stick around and see what happens. ”

Chen said that a lot of the team’s success is due to the mentorships they receive from Worth and Shannon LaBove, the assistant director of the team.

“They are there for us for logistical support and for training us on speech and debate, but I've also gone to them for jobs advice and even people and relationships advice in general,” Chen said. “They're like mentors in addition to coaches. We are very close [to them]. Shannon has literally driven me home in the middle of the night before, and I babysat for Dave's cats and for his kids.”

According to Lin, another important source of support that contributed to the team’s success is their alumni connections, notably Jason Barton (Duncan '19) and Sonia Torres (Hanszen '19).

“We constantly have alumni who come back and sacrifice their weekends to judge for us and to help coach us and help us prep,” Lin said. “So I think that they should also be recognized for all their work, especially Jason and Sonia. They were really the ones who brought up the four of us. They are a huge part of the current success that we have as they continued to be strong supporters and to be really involved after graduating.”

Chen said that their success would not have been possible without the healthy dynamics within their team.

“There's no internal team competition [within us], which I think is a problem with a lot of competitive sports where there's internal conflict because certain people do better than others at certain competitions, and that causes tension,” Chen said. “But that's never been a problem on our team. We are very much supportive [of each other], and that's how we are able to get this far.”

Lin said that the relationships she was able to form during her time in the George R. Brown Forensics Society are an integral part of her college experience.

“I'm really proud of my partner, Joel Abraham, for how well he's done and how well we were able to work together,” Lin said. “Joel and I have been debating together since freshman year, and we're from the same residential college, so we're really close friends. Going into this year, we knew we wanted to do really well, but I feel like we surpassed our expectations.”



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