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Debaters dominate in Cape Town

Nearly 8,000 miles away in Cape Town, South Africa, alongside English teacher and Debate Coach Sarah Getchell, Adam Levin ’18 and Aurash Vatan ’19 represented the school and Team U.S.A. at the 2018 High School World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships (WIDPSC) from April 9 through April 15. Out of 140 competitors, Adam placed fifth overall; Aurash won the impromptu speaking category, tied for first place in the after-dinner speaking category, and placed tenth overall. 

Aurash and Adam both qualified for the annual WIDPSC through their performances at the International Independent Schools Public Speaking Competition in Winnipeg, Canada, in late October. Once at the WIDPSC, they teamed up with 19 other Americans to compete with other top debaters from around the world. Twelve countries were in attendance, among them India, China, South Korea, Lithuania, Cyprus, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Ms. Getchell, who has coached the school debate team for three years and who attended the WIDPSC last year when Aurash also qualified, said she was ecstatic about Aurash and Adam’s performance.

“I knew that we’d put in the work, but it was still thrilling to hear that they’d both finished in higher positions than we’d originally thought to hope for,” she said.

The championship lasted five days: one day for introduction; three days for competition; and one day for the grand finals and a concluding ceremony. 

On the competition days, debaters participated in four events. In parliamentary debate, two teams argued for or against a resolution; in interpretive reading, contestants read a passage from a novel of their choice; in impromptu speaking, contestants spoke extemporaneously for three to five minutes after only two minutes of preparation. For their fourth category, debaters chose either persuasive speaking, where they delivered a prepared speech about a problem in society and suggested a solution, or after-dinner speaking, where they delivered a prepared humorous and entertaining speech designed to be given at a dinner party.

Each of the four categories had two preliminary rounds to determine the top 12 competitors who would move on to finals. The top two from finals then advanced to grand finals. 

Adam addressed gun control for his persuasive speech. In March, Adam delivered a similar speech on the same topic to the school, which he said helped him prepare for Worlds.

“It’s a topic that means a lot to me, and I think presenting a speech with personal significance gives you a certain level of passion on that topic and gives life to important issues facing our society today,” Adam said.

In his after-dinner speech, Aurash spoke about the possibility of being eaten by cannibals, working in political allegories throughout. 

“I always have a lot of fun with after-dinner speeches because there’s much more interaction with the audience than any other event,” he said. “There’s a limit to how audiences can audibly react during a serious speech, but with after-dinners, there’s laughter.” 

“I heard a fair amount of laughter, which was a good sign,” he added.

Adam made the finals in the impromptu and persuasive speaking categories, while Aurash made the finals in the impromptu and after-dinner categories, ultimately placing first in both.

At the conclusion of the WIDPSC, the winning debaters were announced as the top high school English-speaking debaters in the world. 

“[I’m] beyond thrilled,” Aurash said later. “I’m frankly shocked that impromptu speaking was my best category and debate was my worst, but thrilled nonetheless.” 

Adam said that after the preliminary rounds he was pleased with his performance but did not expect to move on to the finals. 

“My performance made me realize that if you really work hard at something, you can reach your goals,” he said.

School debate teammate Sophie Collins Arroyo ’19 said she expected both Adam and Aurash to do well at the tournament. 

“Their [after-dinner and persuasive] speeches were both well-written and played to their strengths,” she said. “Adam’s speech was a timely call to action in which I think he got to show his talent for speaking dramatically and persuasively. Aurash’s speech was really clever satire, so he got to play to his ability to deliver tongue-in-cheek humor.”

Teammate Harry Golen ’19 said he has learned a lot from Aurash and Adam, calling them both really impressive debaters. 

“I think they complement each other well because Adam has very strong passion and emotion, and Aurash is really good at organizing a convincing argument,” Harry said.

Aside from competing, Aurash and Adam reported having made valuable bonds during the championship with other international debaters. 

“I spent a lot of time hanging out with kids from the Canadian and South African teams,” Adam said. “It was great to immerse myself in another culture and meet kids from so many other countries.”

Aurash commented on how close-knit the American team felt and how quickly it had bonded.

“Even though you are working very hard while you’re there, it doesn’t feel like work,” he added, “because (a), speech and debate is something we all presumably enjoy (b), you’re doing it in an amazing setting, and (c), you’re doing it with amazing people.”

Ms. Getchell said she is glad that the school debate program’s approach is working. The team learned a lot from the experiences of Michael Goldfine ’16 and Aurash at Worlds in previous years, she said, and since then they’ve been capitalizing on what she called “growing institutional knowledge.” 

Ms. Getchell also praised the school teammates’ willingness to listen to and edit each other’s speeches and to help each other hone their debate skills.

“We’re a very collaborative team,” Ms. Getchell said, “and our successes are truly collective.”

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