Last spring the Jackson Hole High School Speech and Debate team was in Green River. It was the annual state tournament, where the team usually does pretty well.
As with any competitive endeavor, students were going through their warm-up rituals, preparing, reading notes, whatever they needed to do to be ready.
About an hour before events were supposed to start, the news came: The tournament had been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was just beginning to spread to Wyoming.
“We had gone down the night before and everything, so it was such a disappointing thing,” coach Londe Gagnon said.
Fast forward a year and the team placed fifth at the 2021 4A state tournament, which capped a season of virtual contests in which competitors and coaches alike had to learn new technological and interpersonal skills. Thirteen team members are also headed to the national tournament in June.
Their path to success started last season. Coaches and teams weren’t sure how to respond after the in-person contest was canceled, but Gagnon and some of her counterparts figured out how to hold a virtual state contest about a month later.
“Just the idea that we could actually pull it off and that it happened, that we did it then became this catalyst for knowing that we could do this season,” she said.
In normal times speech and debate is about the worst possible activity for COVID-19 transmission. Schools from around the state gather on the weekends, and kids spend time competing against strangers in events in which they are required to speak, sometimes forcefully, a recipe for spreading aerosolized particles.
During a pandemic it looks a lot like a Zoom meeting. The National Speech and Debate Association created its own software for teams to use, though that cost money, so some just used Zoom, like many of the rest of us do for work.
It was, in a word, different.
“You don’t know if your Wi-Fi is bad, if you’re cutting out or if they can’t hear you at all,” sophomore Alexis Hernandez said.
Some events looked similar to their in-person iterations. For debates the students went back and forth over Zoom, trading speeches. One curiously positive consequence of the virtual season was that kids could try some things they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Senior and team captain Josh Hansen found himself able to compete in Duo Interpretation, in which partners perform a theatrical piece. He and junior Will Aepli performed an excerpt of John Stewart’s book “America (The Book),” a satirical look at government textbooks.
“We’ve primarily done debates and more formal speaking,” Hansen said. “Being successful at that was not something I anticipated.”
Beyond the logistical setup, much was the same this year for the team. It was young, with just five juniors and seniors with experience, and one junior and a host of freshmen and sophomores in either their first or second years on the team.
That didn’t stop team members from racking up accolades and podium placements en route to the 13 kids being chosen for nationals, which will run from June 13 to 18. To get into that tournament students must place in the top four in their event at their district tilt. No matter how many events they qualify in, they must choose one.
Gagnon was selected as coach of the year for both the state and the Wind River District, her colleagues recognizing the work she put in to help put on virtual tournaments. Hansen made it to No. 2 on the national association’s delegate rankings, and he was named a 2021 Wyoming High School Forensics Association ambassador, one of just six in the state.
Over the course of the season the strangeness of the Zoom format wore off. Kids these days are technologically savvy, and many in Jackson were learning under a hybrid model, so they were used to using Zoom for just about everything.
“To me it hasn’t been too much of a problem to debate 20 feet away from my bed in a different room [than other competitors] and put on a suit and go all out,” junior Carter Worchester said.
Some coaches around the state held a vain hope that in-person competition could resume, Gagnon said, but the opportunity never arose. By embracing the format, Gagnon thinks her team got used to the oddity of the season faster. Some teams practiced in person at times, but since all the contests were virtual they weren’t able to work out the kinks of the technology.
“I think that gave us — the team of Jackson — somewhat of an advantage because we are, as the coaches, seeing as the judges do,” Gagnon said.
Perhaps the biggest bonus of the forced digital season was that the team didn’t have to travel every weekend. Wyoming is a spread-out state, and in a normal season the team spends anywhere from three to eight hours traversing its highways every weekend.
Everyone had a lot more free time because they only had to compete. It also allowed the team to participate in tournaments it would never enter in a regular year because of logistical issues, like one hosted by Harvard University.
“It felt like our horizons expanded a little bit this year, so it was nice being able to experience national competition,” Hansen said.
By its nature, speech and debate is a social activity, and the virtual season removed some of that. Students are versed in the same types of information because of the research they have to do, and they find time between events to talk with each other and bond with people from all corners of the state.
That doesn’t happen much in a virtual setting, as the awkward banter a work group might have before a work Zoom meeting doesn’t really happen between kids who don’t know each other well.
Hansen and fellow team captain Preston Harmon, also a senior, had the dubious honor of leading the team during a virtual year. Ever since Hansen started on the team, he said, he looked forward to being a captain, a role reserved for seniors with several years of experience.
He imagined being the one giving pep talks on the bus or pulling aside a younger protege to debrief after an event. Instead, those moments didn’t happen, and he and Harmon had to lead their peers through emails, calls and texts.
“It’s been tough, but I’ve been doing my best to still keep the team connected, to take on sort of an unprecedented role,” Hansen said.
After a year of virtual tournaments the students are ready to return to in-person competition, even if it means long bus rides and full weekends. The team members who spoke to the News&Guide said the missed social opportunities outweighed any benefits gained by not traveling.
“My absolute dream for next year would be to have it almost entirely in person,” Aepli said. “Speech and debate is a communicative activity. It’s an activity about presenting to other people, and it is really reliant on those interactions.
“That’s just always inherently going to be better in person.”
The students might get their way, Gagnon said. Coaches around the state seem prepared to return to in-person contests, though she said they might create a hybrid schedule that would include a couple of virtual meets, just to save everyone from the rigamarole of traveling.
But, looking back on the past year, the team feels it adapted to its situation and came out the other side.
“I think it was successful,” Gagnon said, “under the parameters of what we did.”