Can an Underdog Debate Team Argue Its Way to a National Championship?
I sat in the semifinals of the American Debate Association National Tournament. My debate partner, Cameron Norris, avidly clicked away on his computer, preparing in case we advanced. Directly across from us, our two opponents from Liberty University hunched over their computers doing the same. In the back of the room, three judges quietly deliberated who had won the round. I gazed out the window, too nervous to even think. I could hardly believe how far we’d come.
Inexperienced but Competitive
I came to Vanderbilt with just one year of high school policy debate experience (most collegiate debaters have three to four), and during my freshman year, my lack of experience showed. Somehow I was partnered with Phil Rappmund, BA’08, the debate squad’s senior varsity member. I debated with him at the SEC District tournament. This tournament was hugely important for Phil—it determined whether he would qualify to compete in the National Debate Tournament (another national title) his senior year. He didn’t. I knew I’d stopped him. Policy debate is a two-on-two match, and it’s impossible to succeed without a good partner.
But from that failure rose an insatiable desire in me to win—at all costs. After Phil graduated, I met Cameron Norris, a junior from Knoxville, Tenn. With a shaved head and sporadic facial hair, he had an intense look about him. He loved debate. I’ve never met anyone with such a fierce desire to compete and we decided to become partners. I knew that even if we weren’t the most finessed duo, we’d at least be the hardest working.
We were the underdogs, of course. When the school year started, we had to work to keep up with larger, more experienced varsity squads.
Cameron had only as much experience as I, and we had only two other varsity members to help us, juniors Richard Waller and Brian Abrams. Compared to schools like Harvard or Emory, which often have squads with 15 or more debaters, we knew the odds were stacked against us.
I hardly remember what I said in my speech. I felt nothing but the pure force of argument.
Luckily, though, we had help. The squad hired a former debater, Christian “Seds” Sedelmyer, as an assistant debate coach. From afar, Phil and former debater Houston Shaner, BA’09, helped us research and develop arguments even after they’d graduated. Of course, M.L. Sandoz, the school’s debate director and senior lecturer in communication studies, constantly kept us on track and pushed us to strive for success. Still, winning a national championship seemed about as likely as the Commodores winning the Rose Bowl.
After one particularly disappointing tournament at Wake Forest, Seds forced Cameron and me to play a game of chess against him. Cameron and I took turns moving our pieces, learning to think and act a team and rely on each other.
Cameron and I retooled and competed in the 2010 Berkeley Debate Tournament, placing among the top 16 varsity debate teams. We could hardly believe it. I still remember Will Repko, a legendary debate coach from Michigan State, passing us in the hall and saying, “Great tournament, you guys.”
A Shot at the Nationals?
But in this moment at the ADA National Tournament semifinals, I simply waited. The judges finally announced their decision. We had won! I looked to Cameron, smiling to congratulate him, but he was already packing up to relocate for the final round. “Let’s go!” he barked.
The final round. A national championship on the line. As we fought off exhaustion, we made our way to the auditorium. Across from us sat our opponents, University of Mary Washington’s top team of Kallmeyer and Susko. As defending ADA National champions and one of the top ten debate teams in the country, they were intimidating adversaries.
Everything moved in slow motion as our opponents readied their evidence, set their timers and prepared to start.
“THE UNITED STATES FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHOULD…” the words rang out. No turning back now. Susko moved back and forth, words spewing from his mouth. They argued that we should eliminate its land-based nuclear missiles to help stop nuclear proliferation. Minutes later, Cameron returned fire. We countered that these missiles were key to our security, that proliferation was a manageable risk, and that the president needed to focus on passing health care reform rather than on controversial defense cuts. Just seconds after Cameron’s first speech, Kallmeyer shot off his responses like a machine.
“Dude, I don’t know how to answer this argument. I’ve never heard it before,” Cameron whispered. I couldn’t recall Cameron ever saying those words. I stared at him. “Well, can you do it?” I asked. He paused. “Yeah, I think so.” A gamble. Cameron and I gave our mid-round speeches as the debate passed the halfway mark.
Susko started, and I watched the timer ticking down. He fired off arguments. Our opponents had built their argumentative fort, and the time had come for me to knock it down. This was my final speech. Whether the national championship belonged to us depended on the next six minutes.
I shut everything else out. Cameron gave me a brief nod. I sharply inhaled, and then fiercely spoke as persuasively as I could.
Pure Force of Argument
It’s an odd thing giving a debate speech. You think, but only instinctively. Your brain is processing information and your mouth is saying it, but you do so almost unconsciously. I hardly remember what I said in my speech. I felt nothing but the pure force of argument.
After the speech, sweat dripped down my forehead. I looked at my notes, scanning for flaws. But it was done. As I moved to sit down, I will never forget what Cameron said. He whispered, “That was the best speech I’ve ever heard you give.”
As we waited, I ate for the first time that day, now-cold Chinese food I’d forgotten to eat earlier. I kept nervously glancing at the judges. Their demeanor told me the debate was extremely close. Over an hour passed. Finally, the debate judges prepared to announce their decision. I held my breath. “The winner of the 2010 American Debate Association National Tournament…”
“…is Vanderbilt University.” Shocked, I stood up and hugged Cameron. We’d done it. Against the hurdles of limited experience, past setbacks and strained resources, this scrappy team from Vanderbilt prevailed. We won a national championship!
Nick Brown and Cameron Norris still have a year of college debating left. They’re working harder than ever, and want to bring more national titles back to Vanderbilt and the College of Arts and Science.
photo credit: Steve Green