Audio: Students prepare for prestigious debate tournament


Matt Petres

Senior Aaron Kim and sophomore Mahi Shah will participate in the prestigious debate tournament, the Tournament of Champions, from April 23-25. Aaron and Mahi only started working together last November as debate partners.

Louis Auxenfans, Assistant Editor

There’s nothing wrong here, just fast debate talking, as senior Aaron Kim’s words grasp for breathing room during a debate practice. He’s practicing for the most prestigious and competitive national debate tournament — the Tournament of Champions or TOC, as it’s known in the debate community. On April 23, Aaron and his partner, sophomore Mahi Shah, will have their shot to win it.

In order to qualify for the TOC, Aaron and Mahi needed to earn at least one qualifying bid from debate tournaments this year. They earned two bids when they arrived at the semifinals of both the Dowling Catholic and Gonzaga tournaments earlier this year. 

The Tournament of Champions was founded 50 years ago to bring together the best debaters in the nation, and according to Aaron, its unique qualifying format is one reason why it is so prestigious.

“The TOC is the only tournament that determines acceptance based off of your competitiveness throughout the rest of the year, which makes it usually the most competitive tournament of the year,” Aaron said.

Their event, policy debate, is a rapid-speaking debate format where partners of two are pitted against another team and argue about a certain resolution. Through a complex, yet organized series of speeches and cross-examinations, one side argues that the resolution should be affirmed, while the other side argues to negate it. 

After six or seven open pool rounds in a tournament, the top 32 teams advance to the knockout stages. 

To prepare for the high competitive stakes of the TOC, Aaron and Mahi have been doing extensive research to bring new arguments to the competition and scout other teams’ strategies. 

“At the Tournament of Champions, I think it’s where every round there probably will be something new that you’re going to be hearing, which is unlike any other tournament, because people have specifically researched and put in resources to preparing things for this specific tournament. […] A lot of other things that we do are just scouting other teams that are some of the top teams in the country and figuring out kind of what their strategies have been in the past and potential things that they may go into at the TOC,” Mahi said.

Other school debate teams are larger and better funded than Lab’s team, which means they have more resources for in-depth research for the TOC, but Mahi and Aaron are compensating by enlisting their debate teammates as researchers. 

“It’s mostly become, you know, us determining what we feel like we need help with and then being able to 1) you know, discuss those ideas with the rest of the team, but then also delegate the work to whoever is capable,” Aaron said.

Other times, debate practices involve giving redo-speeches after tournaments, critiquing new arguments, and rapid talking (known as spreading). And practices can sometimes be fiery. 

To Aaron, what keeps these practices interesting is that people argue all the time. 

“Because debate is a polarized activity where everyone is perhaps overconfident, but definitely competitive in a way where their conflicting personal viewpoints of both debate in you know, the world in general, leads to thoughtful arguments that forces you to, you know, refine your approach and your perspective on things,” Aaron said.

This competitiveness is the reason Mahi started her debate journey in ninth grade. 

The biggest reason I enjoy policy debate is because of solely the competition part of it. […] I like making strategic decisions like in-round, [like the just kind of the feel of that] and what it feels like to be competing against people that you know, or don’t know and how it feels like to be time pressed and putting your speech together, finding what’s necessary to win,” Mahi said.

Aaron also started policy debate in ninth grade after seeing his sister join the debate team, and he enjoys the camaraderie aspect of the debate community. 

When you’re prepping together with your friends, it’s fun. It’s worth the activity. You know, I’m very competitive. I like winning, and I’m good at it, so I enjoy it,” Aaron said.

While this year’s competition will be held online instead of in-person at the University of Kentucky, Mahi and Aaron are excited about competing at the top debate tournament and its significance in their journey as policy debaters. 

With their sights set on the TOC, Mahi and Aaron are setting a goal for themselves to reach the elimination round of the top 32 teams. 

And after this year’s Tournament of Champions, both are placing debate among their top priorities. 

When Aaron was deciding colleges to attend next year, the quality of their debate team was one criteria he had in mind because he plans on continuing.  

“I don’t know like in what capacity perhaps — here’s just like a few tournaments a year just to like stay in the community, or if I want to go be really competitive at the collegiate level — but either way, I know that at some level I want to stay both within like college competing,” Aaron said.

Mahi will still have two years of high school left, so she wants to remain competitive in junior and senior year, and find a new partner to qualify again for the TOC. 

Even though the debate season and partnership will be over for Mahi and Aaron after the Tournament of Champions, the skills they learn and build will still remain.