It’s like Christmas Eve for me tonight. Or, more fittingly, since Christmas Eve is really my holiday, it’s like Christmas Eve Eve. The night of the 23rd, when the roof lumis are done and all the rest are waiting in their neat little rows in the garage anticipating the soreness and joy of light that will follow the next night. Except tomorrow is not the night for luminarias, but the first day of the American Parliamentary Debate Association‘s National Championships. Almost as fun, almost as exhausting, always as memorable.
I’m quite proud to have the distinction of having attended more APDA Nationals than any other person. I guess I don’t technically officially know this to be the case, but I know enough APDA history to realize that no one else could be close. Tomorrow will mark my arrival at my 13th Nationals, at the 35th convening of the prestigious title tournament. The first Nationals was held when I was a year old and I didn’t attend till I was 19, in 1999, but dinos (ex-debaters) barely came back for more than a year or two then. Indeed, my own coach went to at least 9 Nationals, maybe ten, with 5 as a coach, and possibly was the record-holder until I probably broke it a couple years back. Institutional memory is traditionally thin on the circuit, as with almost all college pursuits that are not sports with their bevy of outside observers and journalists and scouts.
I competed at Nationals for the four years I was eligible as a debater, 1999-2002, though I didn’t qualify as a fully seeded competitor my freshman year, falling a ballot short of the necessary final round in the last weekend of the year. I didn’t break till my junior year, after an abysmal run with my 5th TOTY partner Steve Rabin in my sophomore season, capping a semester we’d won three straight tournaments during with bitter disappointment. Zirkin and I made it to semifinals, finishing third, felled by our rivals Fletcher and Luftglass from Yale who I’d beaten on Gov in huge semifinals twice earlier that year, burning our two top cases in the process. We were simply a case short of where we needed to be, pulled out an old first-rounder, and got trounced. I would use this as an admonishment to Rutgers kids for five years of coaching that you always need one more case. Fourteen years later, I still feel regret.
Which is silly, because being third at Nationals after winning the North American Championship that year is awesome. And I really can’t look back on my career as a debater and feel anything but grateful. But sometimes I still do.
The less said about my senior Nationals the better, in some ways, though there were things that were amazing about it as well. I have the most pictures of it, too, nostalgia seeming so present already in the moment, it feeling like one of those times when time slows down, stops, almost reverses. My recollections of that tournament in particular are sharp and vivid like a predictable movie on a screen in front of me. The joys and the pains, some of the greatest of both I’ve, to this day, ever felt. And I was profoundly aware of how important that weekend would be to my memory, a rare and valuable thing to go into an event with. Time was so slow those three days. I still remember every round. My mind goes there often, reinforced by a life with debaters offering the opportunity to tell more stories of Nats of yore.
Then there were years of judging and tabbing. I was in the tab room for the Nats my alma mater hosted the year after I graduated, at Brandeis in 2003. Then I missed two years in a row, my longest hiatus from the event. I came back to judge in 2006 and saw a bubble round that I’ve long called the best round I ever judged (and certainly received the highest scores) with Stanford’s Baer and Chan defeating Yale’s Schneller and Bone. I tab directed the 2007 Nationals at Vassar, the first ever dino-run tab room with multiple schools represented, an experiment that quickly became the league standard after that trial. Then I missed two more again before returning for five years as a coach, including tab directing again at West Point in 2011. Indeed, tomorrow will break a streak of being in the tab room for Nats every four years that dates back to 2003.
Of course, possibly nothing will trump last year. The 2014 Nationals Finals run by Sean and Quinn for Rutgers was just the kind of thing that you can’t make up, though people do in movies all the time. Of course, we would have won it all in a movie. But it doesn’t matter, it didn’t matter. The redemption after a year that was so trying in so many ways, the disastrously depressing banquet when we all were almost sure we’d missed the break, the elation of getting in, and then the utter triumph of winning octos and then quarters and then dethroning back-to-back defending champions Harvard on a 4-1 decision. Of getting the Gov in a National Final. Of getting to go out, to step away from coaching, on top. I honestly may have been more tempted to stay, to give it one more year, had we just been knocked out in quarters. But you can’t fight the narratives your life is giving you sometimes.
All the same, I hope we get it this year. The whole she-bang. You have to. There isn’t a single person going who isn’t thinking, somewhere in the back of their mind, about hoisting the trophy and being National Champions. That’s the nature of Championships. You dream big. You see yourself up there. You imagine the steps to get it. And everyone but one team, two people and their supporters, are crushed by the end.
This will be one of those weird years where, technically, I don’t have a role, other than judging and bringing the history. Rutgers has a new coach now, officially, though I certainly plan to do some coaching as well. I’m not in the tab room. I’m long past the days of competing in tournaments that count. I’m there to savor the experience.
There are so many nuances to a Nationals tournament that have long made it my favorite single experience, that keep me sure that I’ll come back for more when this year’s trophy is hoisted and stowed away in a van for a journey home to wherever it’s going. I adore Senior Speeches. Despite the bitter memories of my own, I find Senior Speeches, the little farewell gifts of seniors to the circuit, to be moving and touching and funny and they always, without fail, renew my faith in the event of debate and in APDA as a whole. I feel honored that I’ve heard so many of them and eagerly anticipate this year’s batch.
There’s the expectations and the surprises. Every year, a hallowed team with a realistic chance of winning it all fails to break. Whether it’s the pressure, the preparation, the bounces of it being just one tournament for all the marbles, events always conspire against at least one team that everyone had near the top of their bracket. And almost as often, most every year and especially so lately, an unexpected team or two come out of nowhere to contend for the Championship. My very first Nationals in 1999 were won by a team that no one had on their radar, that no one would have put in their break, defeating TOTY in the Final round. The last two years have featured plucky underdogs taking a low seed and an under-rated season to a 2nd place finish. Semifinals traditionally has at least one team that barely made it in. My junior year, our semifinal was the #2 vs. the #3 seed. The other side of the bracket was the #9 vs. the #11, in the first year that Nationals had broken past 8 teams in at least 3 years.
There’s the reputation bump to those unexpected teams, though, the ones that aren’t seniors. The next year, that same #9 and #11 seed met in Finals at Nationals. They were the only two teams to beat Tirrell and I, the Champions in round 5 and the runners-up in quarters.
There’s the predictable rhythm of the tournament, one that has held true for all 12 Nats I’ve yet attended. The first night, two rounds, is sluggish and ominous, like a distant thunderstorm edging up to the horizon. Teams often come out of the gate heavy. It’s slow for a two-round night when we’re used to three. First round match-ups are surprisingly easy for the top teams, usually, lulling you into a sense of security. (Usually. Our 5th TOTY sophomore year, we hit the best free seed at the tourney first round, a team that had been to four or five semifinals and would have qualled twice over under the modern-day system.) Then the second round matchups are often brutal, reminding you that this is the title tournament after all, and you’d better start bringing it.
Day two is the second-longest day of debate that exists, trumped only by day two of North Americans in the tight-link era (an extra hour per round for the adjudication staff to fight over the motion for the next round). It is always interminable. Always. People look up after round 5 and feel that another day must have passed already. The day drags in a mess of anticipation and waiting and idle wiredness. If you’re lucky, truly lucky, you hit a Zen state where you can just take the day as it comes and drink in the opportunity to speak and do what you love. I think I hit that state my senior year, somehow, feeling so at peace with our decision to run a wide-open case in the bubble against an MIT team that remains the only team I know of to be mis-tabbed out of the Nationals break. Usually, though, you escape rounds rather than winning them. Even the rounds you crush, you just breathe a huge relieved sigh for having gotten them. Every moment feels like an elimination round, even sitting around in GA, feeling like you could fall asleep and miss something or be ninjaed in the back by a competitor. It’s grueling. And then the banquet is impossible, hours and hours of being unable to taste your food or keep it down as you wait for results. Softened only by senior speeches.
Day three, whether you’re in it or not, is lightning quick. It’s such a stark contrast from day two that it’s breathtaking. If you’re in it, you don’t have time to think or process or take stock of the day, it’s just hear the announcement and run to prep for the next round and hope that you’ve done enough prep work in the week(s) leading up that you don’t really need to think right now. You just react. This principle governed how smooth the Rutgers ’14 run was as well as the hard demise of the Brandeis ’01 run. The bracket just resolves and every time you look up, it’s only 8, 4, 2 teams left with a chance at the whole enchilada. Seniors and geniuses are suddenly sitting on the sidelines, and maybe you’re one of them, too stunned to realize that the dream is over, maybe for this year, maybe forever.
I can’t believe this shit isn’t on ESPN by now. I just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it again, to feel at home in this hallowed league, to have the sense of perspective to appreciate it and not apologize for how much I love it. It’s a truly great tournament and I’ll see you there tomorrow.