As a freshman at Bolivar High School, Ryan Cohen said, he almost didn’t pick debate as an elective.
“Funnily enough, the only reason I joined debate was because of a hole in my freshman year schedule,” the 2020 graduating senior said. “... Nothing was particularly appealing to me, so I decided to try something outside my comfort zone and go for debate.”
Looking back, he said it proved the right choice.
Just last month, Cohen won a national championship in extemporaneous commentary at the National Speech and Debate Association 2020 tournament, held online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also earned recognition as speaker of the year in the Lincoln-Douglas event.
BHS debate coach Ethan Samuel said the title is awarded to one debater out of around 256 of the best Lincoln-Douglas debaters in the nation based on their ballots, which is the form a judge uses to explain their decision.
“All students have their first 12 ballots evaluated on a quality score,” Samuel said. “The student with the highest score at the end of those rounds is considered the top speaker.”
Cohen said he’s competed in LD all four years of high school, but commentary has only been open to him as a supplemental event in the national tournament.
At a typical national tournament, Cohen said most of the thousands of competitors are eliminated from the event they qualified in after Tuesday, while the actual competition lasts until Friday.
Rather than just send those debaters home or let them sit around, Cohen said the National Speech and Debate Association offers supplemental events for those who get eliminated early, and then a pair of consolation events for those who are eliminated early from supplemental events.
“Extemporaneous commentary is usually one of the events offered as a supplemental event,” he said.
Cohen, who said he also qualified for the national tournament as a sophomore and junior, has steadily climbed the results board in commentary.
As a sophomore, he advanced through four rounds of the event at the national tournament before being eliminated, finishing in the top 80 in the nation.
As a junior, he made it to the national semifinals before getting eliminated, placing 14th in the nation.
This year, he also qualified for the state tournament, which was canceled due to the pandemic. The state tournament is run through the Missouri High School Activities Association, while the national tournament is organized by the National Speech and Debate Association.
“So it's possible to qualify to the national tournament without qualifying to state, which I've actually done twice,” he said.
Samuel said Cohen’s success is no surprise. He’s a hard worker, the coach said, who still manages to respect his own limits.
“Ryan is a student who has a genuine passion for learning,” Samuel said. “The things that really empowered him throughout every year of competition, and especially his senior year, was that he looked for ways to improve himself.”
Samuel said Cohen’s finish atop the field was the result of that hard work. Cohen attended every tournament he could in his four years in the program, he said.
“Repetition and a willingness to learn from the activity are what allow students to get the most out of anything they're involved in,” Samuel said.
And, every experience in those four years in the program has been fulfilling, Cohen said, thanks in part to the comradery he has with his teammates and coaches. While they’ve always been there to help him develop arguments and provide feedback, it’s the moments outside of competition that Cohen said he drew the most from.
“The reason why the burnout and the exhaustion and the hard work was worth it is my teammates,” he said. “... They kept me sane when I was getting sick of debate, and their company made all of that exhaustion absolutely worth it. I genuinely believe I would have quit speech and debate sometime before my senior year if not for the friends I had with me on the team.”
Samuel agreed the success is shared.
“Nearly everything he and several other members of the senior class of 2020 did was for the good of the team as a whole,” Samuel said. “The students on the BHS debate team all won when he did, because every person who is a part of our organization contributed, whether through research, practice rounds, or even the team spirit.”
Debate has been an experience Cohen said he’s proud to share, and he said he’s hopeful a national championship will raise the local profile of Bolivar’s program, which is among the top 180 debate programs in the country out of the more than 3,000 schools who are members of the NSDA.
“Debate isn't exactly a spectator sport like football or basketball,” he said. “Rounds of competition are typically performed with an audience of one judge and no one else. Since people don't generally get to see us compete, it's a little harder to understand what we do, and thus a little harder to get invested in what we do. But I really do hope that my success helps change that a little bit.”
Cohen’s final commentary round at nationals was streamed live. The roughly five-minute speech is about 52 minutes into the stream at vimeo.com/430850474.
“People finally have the opportunity to get more directly familiar with the events debaters do, and I truly hope that leads to a little more public visibility for the success that I know the debate team will have in the coming years,” Cohen said.