Debaters take season’s top prize

Katie Glueck

Trophies and medals of every shape and size clutter the bookshelves, table tops and window sills of the Hardy House, 1809 Chicago Ave., home to Northwestern’s debate team.

And now, the members of the most successful debate program in the country have to make room for one more award.

Weinberg sophomore Matt Fisher and Weinberg senior John Warden received the Rex M. Copeland Award at the National Debate Tournament in Austin, Texas at the end of March. The award is presented to the most accomplished debate team of the season, said Luke Hill, NU’s debate program coordinator.

“Receiving the Copeland is the equivalent of being the number one seed in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “(Fisher and Warden) were unanimously selected as the top.”

The award ceremony kicked off the National Debate Tournament, held at the University of Texas at Austin from March 26-29. NU was one of only six schools to qualify three teams.

Fisher and Warden made third place overall, while Weinberg senior Rob Mulholand and Weinberg sophomore Stephanie Spies advanced to the quarterfinals. Weinberg junior Greg Friend and Weinberg sophomore Mary Gregg finished the tournament with four wins and four losses.

Warden said it was hard not to finish first at his last debate tournament.

“One thing that makes NU most successful is how competitive the students are and how seriously (we) take debate,” he said. “That makes it better when we win, but it hurts more when we lose.”

Though NU did not win the NDT this year, the team doesn’t have much experience losing. As the oldest continuous debate program in the country, NU’s team has racked up 13 national championships over the years, more than twice as many as any other university.

“One of the reasons doing debate (at NU) is so awesome is you can actually say you’re (a part of) the best that exists,” Warden said. “Debate represents what’s great about Northwestern – we’re highly successful nationally, we have some of the best, most intelligent and most competitive students, we’ve got great resources and support from faculty and alumni.”

But success doesn’t come without effort, Spies said.

“You have to be really competitive,” she said. “It’s an incentive to do work because if I put in a lot, it’ll pay off in the end.”

Spies and the other 11 traveling NU debaters can spend more than 30 hours researching, writing arguments, giving practice speeches, getting feedback and organizing evidence before big tournaments, Hill said.

They also have to make time for schoolwork, which can be difficult when they frequently miss class on Fridays, Mondays and sometimes Tuesdays. The team typically leaves for tournaments on Fridays, elimination rounds start Mondays and final rounds can last late into the night, sometimes as late as 4 a.m.

“It’s a lot of work, but you figure out how to manage your time,” Fisher said. “Sometimes, you have to make the choice between (going out) and putting in another hour of debate or school work. I try to balance as much as I can.”

But Fisher said the thrill of winning and the educational benefits of debate outweigh the sacrifices the team must make in time and energy.

“Debate is a high-paced, intellectual battle,” Fisher said. “I enjoy the competitive nature of the activity, learning about different subjects I’m not likely to learn about otherwise, and the people I’m with. That all adds up to make it worth it.”

Ultimately, NU debate is about commitment to the team and to each other, Gregg said.

“We have this whole culture of excellence, (based off the idea that) everyone has a place on the team,” she said. “When one of us wins, we all win. But when one of us loses, we all lose.”

That attitude may cause a lot of pressure, but it’s a healthy and productive motivator, Fisher said.

“There are few other places where at 2 or 3 a.m., there would be six people all doing research, even if they weren’t debating at the NDT,” he said. “Everyone is cheering for you. Everyone is driven by a strong desire to win. We’re all really in it for the team.”

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