Quick Thinkers, Faster Talkers Tops in Nations


Quick thinkers, fast talkers tops in nation
Emory debate team wins prestigious prize

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/27/07

They amassed boxes and boxes of research materials and spent hours a day reviewing every angle of their arguments. And when the time came to perform at the National Debate Competition in Dallas recently, Emory University senior Aimi Hamraie and junior Julie Hoehn took to the podium with grace.

Then they talked their lungs out.

The college debate team — the first all-female pair to win the tournament in its 61-year history — talk at speeds up to 400 words a minute in competitive mode, rocking back and forth as they hurl words, consult their notes and gulp for air.

To the untrained ear, it sounds, well, a little weird.

Think auctioneer meets attorney, with speed-talking the weapon of choice.

"It's much, much faster than normal conversation," said Hamraie, a senior from Colleyville, Texas, who, like Hoehn, has a full debate scholarship at Emory. "It takes a lot of practice."

And a lot of knowledge.

The pair estimate they reviewed 10,000 documents to prepare for the annual tournament, the most prestigious of its kind in college debating. All year long, college teams had tackled the same topics in debates around the country, arguing whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court should overrule one of four decisions. The debates escalate in difficulty and complexity as the season continues, culminating in the national tournament, held in Dallas March 30-April 2.

At their craziest, says Hoehn of Alpharetta, the pair spent 10 hours a day preparing for the big day. They faced off with the best teams around the nation and, in the end, beat them all for the silver championship cup. Both have been debating since middle school.

A team from the University of Georgia also took home top honors from the tourney as winners of the Copeland Award, given to the best overall team of the year.

UGA seniors Brent Culpepper and Kevin Rabinowitz also spent countless hours cramming data and honing their skills.

Culpepper, a speech communication and political science major who will head to law school in the fall, said after the tournament he "spent a week on the couch watching movies."

"You're so stressed out, there's so much adrenaline, afterwards, if anything, it's like a cathartic release," he said. Culpepper's parents attended the national tournament for the first time and were admittedly a little lost at first, he said.

"But after four or five rounds, your ears adjust, and if you really concentrate, you can comprehend arguments and begin to understand," he said.

Culpepper said he was glad to see the Emory women bring home the title. "It was a big year for Georgia," he said.

Melissa Wade, Emory's director of forensics, who has led the Emory program since 1972, said the sport had made great strides since she was a college debater and that she was "thrilled" to see more women and minorities take up the activity.

In addition to coaching Emory, Wade leads a nationally recognized urban debate league in local schools.

With Hamraie and Hoehn's historic win, Wade said, women who forged the way in college debate years ago are all sharing in the success. What does it mean personally for her?

"It's my career," Wade said. "There's nothing that could mean more."