In our first installment of the Wolf Pack series, we interviewed Liz Letak with regards to the efforts in Utah to foster more national circuit success. Liz Letak and Steve Knell helped create a family of Utah debaters called Team Utah. Alta is Utah’s only bid tournament and the hometown heroes made good use of it. Morgan Lunt from American Fork broke to doubles. Kenzo Okazaki from Rowland Hall advanced to the bid round. Calen Smith acquired Team Utah’s first bid.
Salim Damerdji interviewed Calen to learn more.
SD: How’d you get into debate, Calen?
CS: When I was in 6th grade I took debate mainly to get out of homeroom. Later when we were having to pick events I ended up in LD because my friend didnt want to do policy. My friend Dylan Wootton was the person who really got me into the activity when I got to high school though.
SD: What kept you in debate?
CS: My relationship with debate has changed a lot over the year. In middle school I liked the prospect of traveling with the team around the state. At the beginning of high school I thought it was all about the college apps and the academic challenge it brought. Currently however its the people that I’ve met through debate that really make it worth it. Being part of Team Utah has made me enjoy the activity more than I ever did when I was doing it for the academics.
SD: Could you elaborate more on what team Utah means to you?
CS: Team Utah is a family honestly, it sounds a little cliche but its true. They are always there for you whether you forgot to write a specific T shell or need to talk after round. Ive found some of my best friends in team Utah since its inception. Also you don’t need to be from Utah or even in Utah to be part of team Utah, its all about helping Utah be part of the circuit.
SD: We all know debate has some serious setbacks too. What grinds your gears?
CS: Debate is an an activity that prides itself on being very accepting of all types of people and argumentation however I dont think that is the case often. I have many friends who have been harassed or excluded because of their race or gender. Coming from a fairly traditional circuit I have been told that Im not welcome because of my preference for progressive debate; I’ve seen it go both ways though. I have heard multiple conversations where debaters were put down and viewed as less competitive simply because they are traditional.
SD: When it comes to more progressive debate, what problems do debaters from Utah face?
CS: Coming from a state that only has one bid tournament for LD definitely poses a challenge. I can’t say that these issues are unique to Utah because many states have few or no bid tournaments but I can say that finances are one of the biggest parts for me and many of my friends. It is very hard to gain the practice to be successful on the national circuit when you can’t afford more than one or two out of state tournaments, if that many. Liz Letak touched on the 10 tournament rule, in an earlier Wolf Pack interview; this rule really limits our possibilities for competing in a lot of tournaments both in state and out of state meaning we don’t get as much practice.
SD: What can people from states with a larger debate presence – like California – do to help?
CS: I think a lot of the problem lies in our lack of connections to the circuit community. I personally only had advisers rather than an actual coach until this year when Liz Letak stepped up to coach me. I think that when debaters and coaches meet students from small states they should open themselves up more to assistance. Just by making yourself open and sharing an email address can make all the difference in a person’s debate career. There is an active push in Utah right now to create a more active circuit community and by forging ties at tournaments you can help offer the guidance to take a person to the next level. Much of what Utah debaters need are friends on the outside.
SD: If you could give advice to debaters in any state trying to do well on the national circuit as a lonewolf, what would you tell them?
CS: Don’t get discouraged; don’t let ANYONE tell you your type of debate doesn’t belong. To quote Steve Knell “a good argument is a good argument”. If you care enough about what you are doing it will be enough. As far as sharpening your skills reach out, there are plenty of awesome recourses available at Premiere Debate and V Briefly. You’d be surprised how much you can learn from just reading articles and watching debaters.
SD: Any tips on how Premier Debate could improve?
CS: I think its solid, It offers a lot more resources than other debate sites. Its more relatable for me because of the lone wolf page and the free briefs, it doesnt feel as exclusive. I do enjoy the articles that discuss specific parts of debate and discuss strats and skills etc.
SD: Do you have any post-high school plans to stay in debate?
CS: Unless the right opportunity comes along I am most likely done competing. I would really like to coach a team one day though, Ive been helping run my team for several years because of the unstable coaching situation and Ive loved it, especially the teaching aspect.
SD: So now the fun question. How does getting the bid feel?
CS: It feels pretty great! It was a little overwhelming; when the disclosure happened I couldn’t believe it. Utah has had some great circuit debaters the past years but it’s quite an honor to be the first Utah LDer to have one in a few years. I’m really looking forward to competing for the second one; It’d be awesome to represent Utah.
SD: What tournaments are left in the year to go for bid numero two?
CS: I have Copper Classic which is a big local tournament for us; they also have bids in CX and PF, then Nat Quals, Region, and State. I’m currently getting my ducks in a row to go to Berkeley, Golden Desert, and hopefully a few other bid tournaments.
Best of luck to Calen and the rest of Team Utah!