U-M Debate Team makes strides despite virtual season

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 9:31pm


Design by Grace Aretakis

After a grueling four days of debating, LSA junior Rafael Pierry and LSA sophomore Giorgio Rabinni, members of the University of Michigan debate team, eagerly awaited the results of the 64th Annual Franklin R. Shirley Classic hosted by Wake Forest University. The duo watched as the victors from the previous year — the same team Pierry and Rabinni lost to in the same final round one year before — logged onto the Zoom call to announce this year’s results: 

 The University of Michigan had won in a 4-1 decision. 

Pierry and Rabinni said they celebrated by triumphantly pumping their firsts underneath their individual Zoom cameras in an effort to act composed in front of their opponents and judges. Pierry described how “exciting and exhilarating” this specific victory was. 

“That (win) was significant because it was the first tournament that we had ever won in college, myself and Giorgio specifically,” Pierry said. “It really made us start thinking about the year in more ambitious terms and helped us realize what was possible, and what we could achieve if we put our minds to it and work as hard as we could.”

Despite the unprecedented virtual competition season, the U-M Debate Team has made significant strides this year. In addition to coming in first place out of 32 teams in the Franklin R. Shirley Classic in November, Pierry and Rabinni defeated the University of Kansas in a 2-1 decision at the 56th Owen L. Coon Memorial Tournament hosted by Northwestern University in early February. The University won this major end-of-season tournament for the fifth time in history while beating 85 teams in the process. 

For Pierry, the Shirley victory was especially motivating for him and Rabinni due to well-being issues induced by COVID-19. 

“That was significant in the wake of coronavirus, which is so draining and demoralizing, and it’s this constant omnipresent thing that’s weighing you down and making school, debate and social life so much harder,” Pierry said. “So to have that happen in the middle of it, when the pandemic was kind of at its peak near the end of the first semester last year, was very inspiring and bracing for us for the rest of the season.”

Head Coach Aaron Kall, who has been a part of the program’s staff since 2002, discussed how extraordinary the team has performed.

“It’s only the third time we won Wake Forest and fifth time we won Northwestern (tournaments) in over 56 years,” Kall said. “It’s just so rare when something like that happens, and everything has to go right; you know that it’s not going to come around all too often, so you really have to kind of savor the experience in the moment.”

Five other U-M Debate teams made it to the elimination rounds, including LSA freshman Kelly Phil and LSA junior Brandon Stras, who also reached the Final Four round of the tournament. Despite residing in two separate continents, Phil and Stras said they have managed to successfully practice and compete all year long over Zoom. 

“Because of COVID, most of our practices have been online, and all the team meetings have been on Zoom, so that’s something very different,” Phil said. “And because I live in Taiwan, it also means I have to wake up at unusual times — like right now it’s 4 a.m. So that’s been a little challenging but eventually I got used to it.”

Stras, who currently lives in Ann Arbor, further acknowledged the bizarre reality of time zones he and Phil must undertake.  

“I’m still whacked out by the idea of debating from Taiwan,” Stras said. “Sometimes at the end of the day, (Kelly’s) like, ‘Oh, the sun is rising,’ and I’m like, ‘That sounds awful.’”

In addition to the complexities of coordinating in different time zones, U-M debaters are learning to adjust to the difficulties of being physically separated from each other. Pierry discussed how the in-person advantages of debate and communication are lost over Zoom.  

“Last year when we were debating in-person, I was physically with Giorgio during the debate rounds: You would sit next to each other just a table or two away and you’d be able to communicate verbally throughout the debate round,” Pierry said. “But given COVID, that’s no longer possible and we have debate partnerships that are separated, literally, by hundreds of thousands of miles. (Rabinni) lives in Florida, I’m in the upper floor of a house with my roommate in Ann Arbor. So we have to communicate during debate rounds through a discord call online — basically just like a phone call to each other — instead of being able to have the usual benefits of in-person communication with each other.”

Pierry discussed how accessibility to the Internet, WiFi troubles, searching for a fitting place to debate over Zoom and lack of motivation have contributed to the “more taxing and challenging” virtual debate season.

“COVID also makes preparing for tournaments harder because it’s not as easy to have practice rounds,” Pierry said. “You’re further away from coaches, or other members of the teams, so it can be harder to coordinate. And as a consequence, it’s impacted tournament participation.”

Looking towards the rest of the season, the team hopes to compete in and win the National Debate Tournament, the national championship for college debate, which has been an anticipated goal of the program for years.

“We’ve won second place at the National Championship four times; we’ve won third place at the National Championship eight times,” Kall said. “But we’re still seeking the first national championship for the University of Michigan, and we think Rafael and Giorgio have a great chance to win it.”

Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at mlewand@umich.edu


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