Personal Reflections of National Champion

by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

When I look back on my years at Wake Forest, there is no doubt in my mind that debate was the most worthwhile activity in which I participated. It is easy, during my first year of law school, to appreciate the skills that I acquired from debate – the ability to articulate ideas clearly, to research, to organize arguments, to prepare for exams as though I were preparing for a debate tournament. I will never forget a conversation I had during my first week at NYU Law with Paul Hayes, a second-year law student and outstanding CEDA debater. Paul related to me what one of his old friends from debate, who later went to law school, had told him. “Law school is like debate. Only less work.”

But debate is about more than just preparing participants to be successful lawyers, or activists, or politicians, or whatever profession they choose to enter. Debate is about more than the skills that debaters acquire. I take from the activity numerous friendships and ideas that I would not have if not for debate, as well as the knowledge of how to be part of a team. Undoubtedly the highlight of my debate career was winning the National Debate Tournament in 1997 with Brian Prestes. The experience was magical, from the time that the 3-2 decision in semifinals was announced through the final round decision and celebrations thereafter.

When we found out that we had won the semifinals, Brian, Adrienne Brovero and I embraced, overjoyed that a Wake team had made the final round of the NDT at long last. A couple of months later, when Wake Forest Magazine did a write-up on the victory, Allan Louden was quoted as saying that this victory was for everybody who had been a part of Wake debate over the years, because they all had contributed to the win. At no time did I understand this more than at that moment, before the final round had even begun, when I believe that Brian and I both appreciated Adri every bit as much as we appreciated each other’s contributions. Not only had Adri been a phenomenal coach all season long, but Brian and I had both had learned an enormous amount from her as a debater. She had learned a lot, I know, from Marcia Tiersky and others. It was not just Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Brian Prestes reaching the final round; I thought in the brief moments before I was whisked out of the room of John Hughes, of Alan Coverstone and Judd Kimball, of Rick Fledderman and Mark Grant, all of them great Wake debaters over the years. Wake Forest debate truly is a tradition, and to be part of a tradition means building upon the foundations that others laid before you.

I hastened from the room to prepare for the final round against the University of Georgia. I had a couple of minutes of calm to sit and scribble down my acknowledgements, the people who I would thank during the debate. Although during the season I had often envisioned this moment, when the decision in the semifinals of the NDT was announced and I prepared for the final round, the acknowledgements did not come as easily as I had hoped. I could have said a lot, but I decided to keep my statement concise to make what I did say more meaningful.

The next year, when I watched Northwestern and Emory debate in the NDT finals, and their acknowledgements were long and detailed, I realized that I had made the wrong choice by making mine so concise. There were many more people I could have thanked for contributing to our victory that year, including Andy Geppert and Clay Rhodes for all the evidence they produced and all the ideas they shared with us. In all the excitement, somehow I forgot to include Prestes among the people I thanked – but I assume, and I hope he realized at the time, that he was implicit in my acknowledgements. But besides people I could have thanked, I also could have said more about what the debate season had meant to me personally, to give others a better idea of how challenging the season had been and why being in the NDT finals meant so much.

Prestes had called me on July 4, 1996 to ask if I wanted to debate with him. I had been anticipating this phone call for quite some time. At that point, Prestes was easily the best debater on Wake’s squad, one of the five best returning debaters in the country, and the most efficient and prolific researcher I had ever known. I had learned a lot about debate from watching him and Hughes debate the year before, as well as from many conversations with Prestes. We had hung out together a lot after the Middle East topic had ended in early April 1996, and I thought that we had become fairly good friends. My respect for him, as a debater and as a person, would only grow during the year as we spent more time working together, strategizing together, and doing our thing in rounds.

But in July 1996 I was intent on showing Prestes that I would work hard, and that he should have high expectations of how we would do as a team. Although I’d received a first-round bid the year before, there is a large difference between being one of the top sixteen teams in the country and being a top-five team, as he and Hughes had been in the 1995-96 season. I imagine that Prestes had felt the same way I did when Hughes had decided to debate with him the year before.

The will to work hard was not all that stood in my way, however. There had been signs all summer that I was sick. When I returned to Winston-Salem to research the environment topic and spend time strategizing with Prestes, my health only got worse. I remember, in mid-August, that my mouth hurt. When I looked in a mirror, I saw a couple of lesions in my mouth. Where did those come from? I wondered.

Things got worse before they got better. I thought at the time that I had a low-level flu, but if I’d been less focused on debate and more aware of my physical condition, I would have realized that my illness was much more than that. I was having trouble digesting anything, losing weight, feeling extremely weak. I had trouble concentrating. I’d often sit in the squad room, trying as hard as I could to cut cards, to read and understand briefs that other people had turned out. But it was a losing effort; I could barely focus for more than ten minutes at a time.

One night I was walking from the squad room to my dorm, Huffman. I wore a winter coat, even though it was a warm September. But despite the coat, I felt cold. Soon my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. I felt like a cartoon character; my jaws would not stop moving even though I tried to tame them, even though I knew it wasn’t really cold outside.

People would comment on the winter coat, especially on the debate team. Comments at squad meetings that were meant as jokes, like, “Daveed, it’s not that cold!” would grate on me. And even though such remarks angered me at the time, I realize now that the people who made them didn’t realize what I had been going through. Nobody could have realized it.

Things got worse. Even walking across campus without getting winded became a chore. Prestes called one evening to see if I wanted to go to his on-campus apartment to do debate work, but I told him that it was “kind of far.” He was perceptibly annoyed; later we would laugh about it. Later he would tell me that comments like that had made him think I was lazy, and he was surprised that he hadn’t recognized my sloth before.

The University of Northern Iowa tournament, the first tournament of the year, finally arrived. I went there with something like twenty lesions in my mouth. I would suck on Halls cough drops during debates, hoping that they would make me speak more clearly, and wash my mouth with Listerine between rounds, hoping that it would have some effect on the lesions. Neither worked. Although we went 7-1 and cleared as the second seed, we lost in quarterfinals – our earliest exit from a tournament all year.

I also failed to win a speaker award at UNI, the only time during the season that would happen at a non-round robin tournament. About a week later, while Wake hosted the National Earlybird high school tournament and Prestes and I were busily preparing for the Kentucky Round Robin, I spoke to Stefan Bauschard briefly about UNI. I blamed my lack of a speaker award on “my flu” and boldly predicted that I would earn one at Kentucky, after I had recovered.

But things got worse. I eventually went to the health center when I began to think that this might not be a simple flu after all. They did some blood tests and called me a few days later to inform me that I had anemia from loss of blood. They asked me to come in for further tests. When they got a look at me, they told me that I was the sickest person they had seen all semester and referred me to North Carolina Baptist Hospital. Although I hate to admit it now, the only thing I could think about at the time was the Kentucky Round Robin. I wanted to know if I would recover in time to go to the Round Robin. I wouldn’t.

Justin Green gave me a ride to the hospital. I began to feel a little better, some small sense of relief, when I walked inside it. Somehow, I believed that the nightmare I had been experiencing for a month would soon be over. I strode down the hall to the room I was assigned. My physical appearance must have reflected my sense of relief, as one of the nurses in the room told me to get off the bed because only patients could sit on the beds. I had to explain that I was the patient.

I spoke with Prestes on the phone from my hospital room a couple of times. Although at first we spoke about the possibility of me recovering in time for Kentucky, I think we both knew that it wasn’t going to happen. He and Justin went to the tournament together, and I congratulated Prestes when they won the Round Robin.

I hadn’t even realized how much weight I had lost during my illness. I had weighed 165 pounds in mid-August. By the time I returned home to Oregon in early October, my weight had plummeted to 119.

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a digestive condition of unknown cause, although genetic factors seem to play a role in its formation. Crohn’s Disease is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract. The doctor explained to me that my body reacts to certain foods (corn, whole nuts, whole grains, most raw vegetables) as though they are poisons, and tries to expel them. This becomes dangerous when I eat too many foods that it believes are poisons – during a “flare-up,” my body may begin to believe that all foods being introduced to it are poisons, and refuse to digest anything. That is exactly what happened to me in August and September of 1996.

In early October, my father flew out to Winston-Salem to help me move out of my room. I had already missed a substantial amount of school, and it was obvious that I needed time to recover. On my way out of town, I stopped in Carswell Hall for some reason. In the basement, I ran into Brian, Justin, and the coaches who had traveled to Kentucky with them. They were just returning from the tournament after losing in the double-octafinals.

I was able to speak with Brian for a few minutes. Mainly, I asked him what would happen when I recovered and returned to Wake Forest – would we debate together, would he debate with somebody else, what? He told me that he had no idea, and added that Ross has probably never dealt with anything like this before.

For me, there were a handful of defining moments for my last season in debate. The last defining moment, of course, came when the decision was announced after the NDT finals. The first of these, however, occurred in the basement of Carswell, after Brian went on his way. I had known, coming into the season, that Brian and I were going to be a damn good team and would have a realistic shot at winning the national championship. For much of my sophomore year I had thought about this opportunity – debating with Prestes, comprising one of the top teams in the country, working hard and seeing how far we could go. And now, not only was my semester finished, but also my partnership with Prestes and my entire season were in question.

Another defining moment came a few weeks later. I stood in my bedroom, a dresser drawer opened with an accordion file and stack of briefs piled on top of it. My timer was counting down and I practiced reading the blocks. I envisioned myself in the elimination rounds at Harvard, delivering my 2NC in front of a room packed with spectators. In my head, I would determine the team we were up against, and pull out either a file on their case or a disadvantage I was sure to extend against them. Then I would read as though all eyes were on me, making sure that my words were crystal clear, emphasizing the most critical words and phrases in each card, concentrating on my delivery.

My recovery had been rapid. I was on medication for Crohn’s Disease, asacol and prednisone, and had essentially been eating six meals a day, gaining back a good portion of the weight I had lost while sick. I had received a surprising amount of support during the process of recovery, considering that throughout the first two years of my college debate career I had felt a lot of pressure not to debate. My parents, during my freshman and sophomore years, had encouraged me to quit debate. The Reynolds Scholarship Committee often wondered why I had chosen to pursue the activity in college. Tom Phillips, the director of merit-based scholarships, had told my dad that I was “debate-obsessed” when he came to Winston in October to help me move out.

But after a number of conversations, my parents began to realize the value of the activity. They wrote a very articulate letter to the Reynolds Committee explaining why they supported my involvement in debate. In turn, the Reynolds Committee quite generously announced that they would extend my scholarship for one extra semester, to cover the time that I would miss while recovering.

Not only did I receive support at home, I also got some amazing support from the debate team. Ross offered to fly me out to the Dixie so that I could watch some rounds, get up to speed on the topic, and scout our competition. In response, I suggested that he fly me to the Harvard tournament so that Brian and I could debate together one more time before the California Swing. In the end, he flew me to both. Brian and I were the top seed at Harvard and won the tournament, boding well for the next semester.

Brian and I grew immensely as a team in the spring. I learned an enormous amount from him – the intricacies of political process arguments, how to work more efficiently and strategically, how to give more effective 1ARs and 2NRs. I know that Brian finally came to appreciate the fact that debates could be won on kritiks and other unconventional arguments while debating with me. But the biggest strength we developed during the semester was a versatility that neither of us had previously possessed, and an ability to adapt to whatever judges were thrown our way.

There were many stops along the road to the NDT that pointed to our growing creativity and versatility. There were the two rounds we won without evidence at the Heart of America tournament when our boxes arrived late (which is another story in itself, and further proof that Ross is the best coach in the country). There was round seven at Northwestern, where we beat Michigan’s new case on a social ecology kritik. There were the rounds where we ran two counterplans in the 1NC.

Ross did a great job fostering this versatility in us. I remember an anecdote he told us before the NDT, about a Wake Forest team that was negative in a prelim debate at an earlier NDT in front of a Wake-friendly panel. During the cross-ex of the 2NC it became obvious that they had run the links the wrong way on their most important disadvantage. They had run topicality in the 1NC and didn’t extend it in the 1NR. Instead they went for the substantive positions and lost. Ross’s point was that the 2NC should have taken prep time after that cross-examination to tell the 1NR to go for topicality, because it was their last hope.

Ross’s story, the tale which was at the forefront of my mind throughout the NDT, proved to be well-chosen, as we won the tournament by going for topicality three rounds in a row. Prestes took it in his 1NR in both semis and finals, and I’m sure it shocked everybody (myself included, even though I had learned during the course of the year to never underestimate Prestes) that someone who hadn’t gone for topicality in six years could argue it so effectively.

One final defining moment in the season came before my 2NR in the NDT finals. Georgia had only put out three answers on social ecology in their 2AC, and Brian wanted me to go for the kritik. He told me that if they had only put out three answers on our Clinton disadvantage in the 2AC, we would definitely go for it. But I wanted to go for the argument where we were strongest instead of extending a position just because Georgia’s 2AC answers were weak. And ultimately, because I was giving the 2NR, I had veto power.

This moment was significant to me because it demonstrated how Brian and I functioned as a team. Earlier in my debate career, I’d had a partner who would always insist that I go for one of his 1NR positions in my 2NR because he was afraid that of looking like the team’s weak link. But here, when Brian and I argued about what I should extend in the 2NR, he wanted me to go for a position I had taken in the 2NC, while I was insistent that I only go for his 1NR arguments.

At a party after our NDT victory, a Wake alum asked me what was the secret to winning the NDT. I grinned and said, “Topicality.”

Some of the alums who were there hadn’t known that we won the NDT on topicality. “Whatever happened to clash?” somebody asked.

Ross replied that we went for the position that won us the debate. We went for the right position. And I agree with Ross – there is nothing heroic about losing. There is nothing heroic about refusing to go for a kritik that could win you a debate. There is nothing heroic about refusing to disco when it is your best shot at victory. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing heroic about refusing to go for topicality. I know that a couple of the teams we beat on our way to victory did not consider T a “legitimate” position – perhaps they felt that it isn’t heroic enough to go for T when you have disadvantages, case turns and counterplans. But I am happy to look back on my debate career and know that I won the NDT, rather than look back and say, “Well, I lost – but at least I didn’t go for that damn topicality position.” And I’m sure that the teams who lost to it now wish that they had taken it more seriously.

When I taught at the Michigan Classic that summer, a lot of the other lab lectures were a little surprised when Prestes, during a speaker position lecture on the 1N, advised the students that they should run kritiks in the 1NC. He told the students that it’s important to have as many strategic options as possible to win the debate. A 1NC that runs topicality, a kritik, a counterplan, strong case arguments and disadvantages has at least four strategic options to win the debate. Wake Forest debate had really changed since my freshman year, when other debaters scoffed at me for my interest in kritiks (although, in all fairness, much of the scoffing was probably justified). And I really believe that much of the transformation occurred round seven at the Northwestern tournament that year, when Brian and I defeated Michigan’s new case on social ecology.

I spent the fall of 1997 studying in Venice, Italy. When I returned to Wake Forest, I did a bit of assistant coaching for a semester, and my involvement in debate ended after I taught at the Wake debate institutes in the summer of 1998.

Not continuing with debate was a difficult decision for me. In the end, I think I made the right decision, as I was able to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to if I had continued debating. I was able to spend a semester in Venice, to use a grant from the school to study Islamic Sufism in Istanbul over Spring Break in 1998, to host a television show my last semester at the school, to pursue my passion for political activism.

My main regret about retiring after my junior year was that I wasn’t able to pass the knowledge I had accumulated onto the squad. While I had been on the team, Adri and John had debated together. When Adri graduated, John debated with Brian. Brian then debated with me. Although I had hoped that I could share my knowledge of the activity as an assistant coach in the spring of 1998, I realize now that it isn’t the same kind of involvement.

But Wake has done quite well since then – Justin and Clay had an outstanding season together, and as of this writing, the team of Cyclone Covey and Wes Lotz won their most recent tournament, the Redlands Round Robin. I am confident that Wake debate will soon return to the semis and finals of the NDT, and will be a contender for years to come.