This story was originally written for The Northern Light.
The University of Alaska Anchorage was substantially represented at the World Universities Debating Championship by Johanna Richter and Jonathon Taylor.
Johanna Richter, economics major and Jonathon Taylor, USUAA president and political science major placed 33rd as a team at the tournament over winter break in Thessaloniki, Greece. There were 400 teams at the event.
Richter and Taylor were recently crowned as tournament champions at the Seattle University Worlds Debate Tournament just weeks before traveling to Greece. They were accompanied alongside Steve Johnson, coach and director of Seawolf Debate, and Jacob Shercliffe, member of the team. Johnson has been coaching UAA’s debate team for 20 years.
Johnson and Shercliffe both served as adjudicators in the competition. Johnson was a chair for adjudication panels while Shercliffe was a wing member of the adjudication panel.
Johnson has gone to Worlds 17 times with UAA’s debate team.
“Some universities that have had historically high levels of competitive success are allowed to bring additional teams,” Johnson said.” This year, we were allocated just a single team and so we had to pick from over ten active debate teams. We had to pick one to represent us at Worlds. It was pretty clear that JT and Johanna were going to be our choice.”
Richter explained that through the days of the tournament, the team’s speaking time amounted to a little less than two hours.
“We’d get on a bus at 7:30 a.m. to get at the tournament at 8 [a.m.], and then we would wait around. Normally, the first round wouldn’t start until 1 p.m., and then we wouldn’t get out until 9 or 10 [p.m.] at night. We sat for a ridiculous amount of hours every day so we could talk for a total of around an hour and a half for the whole tournament,” Richter said.
Both Taylor and Richter participated in the WUDC last year, but not as a team. In 2014, each individually placed in the top 25 percent of speakers. This year, Taylor placed in the top 10 percent of speakers while Richter placed in the top 12 percent. Out of the 800 participants, Taylor placed 57th and Richter placed 89th.
“It’s amazing to look at an 800 person tab and see that we placed in the double digits,” Richter said.
This semester, Richter and Taylor traveled to four different tournaments before Worlds. The team practices around six hours a week and several hours of one-on-one practice with a coach or teammate. Richter and Taylor are constantly reading up on current events and putting in hours to their debate careers.
“One of the things that happens sometimes at debate tournaments is you do get intimidated by other people’s institutions and the name attached to them. Monash is a fantastic debate university out of Australia, just incredibly high-quality debaters; they produce a lot of world champions and people who rank very highly,” Taylor said. “To go to a tournament and not just compete with them but to be on the same level with them, interact with them in rounds, sometimes finish ahead of them reminds us that the amount of coaching and time and effort that we put into the activity really yield some pretty positive results.”
Only eight teams from the U.S. qualified for the elimination rounds. Not only was UAA the only American public school to qualify, UAA was the only non-Ivy League school to break from the American teams.
“This is the story that we’ve been trying to tell about the University of Alaska Anchorage, that we have as high-quality students here that you could find at any university. Considering that there were over 300 universities represented at this tournament, and of those 300 universities, 46 came from the U.S. The U.S. is a very well represented nation at Worlds,” Johnson said. “Of those 46 universities, only eight of them qualified teams to the elimination rounds, Harvard qualified two teams, Yale qualified two teams, and then Princeton, Columbia, and Penn each qualified a single team. Then, JT and Johanna were the 8th team from the U.S. that qualified. When you’re in the company of six different Ivy League institutions, none of which are public universities like ours, I think it really lets people know that we are as good of a university, with as good of students, with as high-quality programs as any other.”
The University of Alaska Anchorage advanced to the elimination round while several top-notch universities did not qualify. UAA surpassed schools including Stanford, Dartmouth, Cornell and Duke.
Johnson expressed that Richter and Taylor earned their accomplishments.
“They are one of the hardest working debate teams I have ever had the privilege of coaching. They literally sequestered themselves from when finals were over, throughout the semester of course, but literally when finals were over they focused exclusively on debate. They were reading about current events, they were doing practice rounds, they were watching videos from previous competitions, and they really earned this victory,” Johnson said.
“The experience is definitely something that I will replay in my head my whole life,” Taylor said.
Richter and Taylor agreed that their experience of placing so well at a WUDC is something that they will remember forever. Even though Taylor is graduating this Spring, Richter hopes to attend the next WUDC tournament which will be held in the Netherlands.