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National speech and debate tournament sets record in Phoenix

A record number of competitors, coaches and spectators attended the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Phoenix and Mesa. The National Speech and Debate Association calls it the largest academic competition in the world. In June, the Valley hosted close to 7,000 students from the U.S., Guam, Mariana Islands, Canada, China and Taiwan.

Inside the Phoenix Convention Center, it looked like a typical gathering of middle and high schoolers. Lots of chatter, selfies and ice cream. 

But it felt different.

There was nervousness — after all, it was a national competition. But that air of self-consciousness that sometimes oozes out of teenagers was less palpable. It’s not that they were uber confident; it’s that they recognized their voices are really being heard.

Audience members packed the ballroom and thousands more attended the live stream. A record 6,700 middle and high school students participated. Bozeman High School in Montana sent the most — 31. And several schools sent a single student. 

“You’re given a platform and you get to say what you want and I think that’s what’s really special about speech and debate,” said Cora Wintring, one of seven competitors from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix. “Speech and debate is similar to track and field in the sense that there’s a ton of different events.” 

Her events are poetry and debate. There’s also dramatic interpretation, duo interpretation and humorous interpretation.

As Wintring enters her senior year, she credits the research and training for making her ask questions and dig deeper, “And I think that’s something really valuable especially as we grow up and go into the world and start voting because I just know that I don’t want to be somebody that’s swayed by, you know, false propaganda almost or like — you know how politics can be.”

Wintring’s coach at Desert Vista is Marco Dominguez.

“It’s definitely out of all the things I’ve done in education,” he said. “You see the results, like right in front of you, you see it immediately.” 

Dominguez coaches more than 80 students. They usually get together twice a week, he said, plus, “They wake up in the morning, they run their piece. Some of them run it while they're driving to school. They sometimes come in between classes to run something, they come at lunch and they’re prepping and researching. They stay after school and prep and research more. And then on top of that, we do tournaments, we have a full tournament that lasts from Friday until the end of the day on Saturday.”

The National Speech and Debate Association says participants get better grades and they’re more likely to attend top colleges than their peers. The group boasts 2 million alumni, including Academy Award winners Jordan Peele and Brad Pitt, and Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayer. 

“This activity is really where I got my start,” said Anna Manasco.

In high school, she competed in extemporaneous speaking. Today, she’s a federal judge in Alabama and a first-time judge at the National Speech and Debate Tournament.

“This is inspiring,” she said. “They are spending their summer learning how to have informed, civil discourse about really controversial and important issues.” 

Judging can be tough when a student makes a mistake, or their time runs out before they finish.

“Your heart does hurt for them in that circumstance but all of that's a learning experience. I mean that’s a microcosm of the real world,” Manasco said.

The Association counts 140,000 students among its members and nearly 4,000 coaches. Dominguez said there is no mold for the perfect participant. Some can afford private coaches, some can’t afford a suit for competition.

“I think that spectrum of students is beautiful because once you get on stage and once you perform and once you speak, what’s important is what you say,” Dominguez said.

Wintring said she’s discovered a new side of herself, “I never thought I'd be able to perform poetry the way that I do. I never thought that I'd be able to speak to people the way that I do and I certainly never thought I’d be able to come up with all of these arguments off the top of my head in the middle of round. But speech and debate is really something magical.”

Multiply her feelings by thousands and you better understand this event, where teenagers can be creative and vulnerable — and supported.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.