Denny Lee ’20 and Aniroodh Ravikumar ’20 prep for their next debate during competition in the World Universities’ Debating Championships at the University of Cape Town.

Cornell team reaches world debating championship final

For the first time, a Cornell Speech and Debate Society team made it to the Grand Final of the World Universities’ Debating Championships, held Dec. 29 to Jan. 3 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Arguing for and against positions on topics ranging from romantic love to banking policy, the team of Denny Lee ’20 and Aniroodh Ravikumar ’20 advanced through the nine preliminary rounds and three elimination rounds before the final. The topic: “The present condition of humanity is preferable to its condition in 100 years time.”

Cornell debaters Brittany Garcia ’19, Sukhmani Kaur ’21, Jin Mo Koo ’21, Emma Rose Wirshing ’19, Leo Grageda ’20, Denny Lee ’20 and Aniroodh Ravikumar ’20 during the competition in Cape Town.

The duo competed in the final against a team from the University of Zagreb and two teams from the University of Sydney, one of which won.

“I was watching the finals on YouTube as a freshman, so to end up there was pretty surreal,” said Lee, a government major. “You think at Worlds it will be pretty intense. We just kept winning. It just worked.”

Said Ravikumar, a computer science major: “The day before the tournament, we had a couple practice rounds with a bunch of debaters that we knew from other schools. You often meet these people at various tournaments throughout the year, and you end up forming friendships. The whole stress of the activity helps in a way.”

The annual world championships use a format modeled on British Parliamentary debate. Teams are given a topic and 15 minutes to prepare; competitors then argue both sides of the topic, pro and con. Points earned during preliminaries are totaled to determine the field for elimination rounds.

“Aniroodh and I have been debate partners since freshman year,” Lee said. “Preparation is pretty intensive; we don’t even have to explain full thoughts to each other.”

More than 200 teams competed this year in what is the world’s largest intercollegiate debate competition, according to head coach Johanna Richter, assistant director of the speech and debate program.

“Making it to the final round is comparable to making it to the Super Bowl, if that were a global competition,” said Richter, who competed in the 2016 Worlds in Thessaloniki, Greece, for the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “To prep for tournaments, we practice four times a week. You can’t use the internet or electronic materials to prep, you have written materials; and there’s the assumption that you are generally informed on global events.”

Nine students from Cornell competed this year. Computer science major Emma Rose Melander Wirshing ’19, the captain of Cornell’s Worlds Debate Team, and government major Jin Mo Koo ’21 made it past preliminary rounds to compete as octofinalists (a round of 32 teams). They fell out of the competition after debating “An approach of political expansionism on the part of the Chinese state is in the interests of the Chinese people.”

Brittany Garcia ’19, an industrial and labor relations major and president of the speech and debate society, and Sukhmani Kaur ’21, a history and government major, both missed the elimination rounds by a point.

Graduate student and assistant coach Daniel Yoon ’17, graduate student David Alatorre Lopez and undergraduate Leonardo Grageda ’20 also competed in preliminaries. Richter, Yoon and alumna Enting Lee ’17 served as adjudicators at the tournament.

“In the entire history of Cornell, no individual Big Red debate team has done as well at such a prestigious debate competition,” said Samuel Nelson, speech and debate society faculty adviser and director of forensics at the ILR School. “It really is a historic feat.”

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Rebecca Valli