COLORADO SPRINGS. St. Mary’s High School speech and debate team members Ben Bodnar and Daniel Zill had one goal going into the 2019-2020 season — qualify for nationals. That goal had been set last year, when they narrowly missed qualifying for the 2019 National Speech and Debate Tournament. The first weekend in March 2020 Bodnar and Zill accomplished their goal, finishing first in the region in duo interpretation at the Colorado Grande District NSDA National Qualifying Tournament. A week later the world began to change.
The season started off slowly for Bodnar, now a recent graduate, and Zill, who will be a senior at St. Mary’s next year. They struggled to find a duo interpretation piece they liked as much as the humorous piece they had done last year.
Initially neither was thrilled with the piece they settled on, “Old Wicked Songs,” which their coach Jeff Borst suggested. However after practice and polishing their presentation with assistant coach Ethan Hale, they felt it was one of the best in the region as they went into the national qualifier. Bodnar said he knew they had had something special in their performance when a top tier team in their region seemed intimidated after watching him and Zill present their piece.
“I have never felt more powerful,” Bodnar said. “After watching us present in a round, I saw fear on their faces and they immediately went to practice more before the next round. This team had consistently been one of the best of the best; it was a really cool feeling.”
The other team had reason to be fearful — Bodnar and Zill won the duo interpretation event at the district’s national qualifier, making them not only competitors at this year’s nationals but also the best duo interpretation team in the region. Bodnar said the experience brought him to tears. The St. Mary’s duo had accomplished its goal for the year and were already looking forward to having their nationals experience, including hanging out with their friends and seeing the amazing competition that is presented at the national event.
Just a week after qualifying, however, the dream of that nationals experience began to slip away. At first, both boys assumed that by the time nationals rolled around the world would be more or less “back to normal.” But as the COVID-19 quarantines and mandatory shutdowns continued, the idea of an in-person competition happening became less and less likely. First, the Colorado Speech and Debate Tournament was canceled and there was fear that nationals, which had been scheduled for mid June in Albuquerque, New Mexico, would also be canceled.
Instead, the National Speech and Debate Association decided to move the national tournament online. For duo interpretation competitors, like Bodnar and Zill, that meant recording their piece on a split screen and submitting it for judging. Judging occurred from June 14-20, during which the competitors were able to join virtual rooms and meet the judges as well as watch the other competitors in the event.
“It was definitely different,” Zill said. “We could sign up to get emails and texts about how we were doing, so we knew that we were progressing through the rounds. We made it to the octo-finals and I’m pretty content with that.” Bodnar said not being in the same room together for their performances was challenging for duo interpretation teams. The best teams, he said, rely heavily on intricate blocking to give them a competitive edge, and without that element, the pieces don’t present as well.
Zill said he and Bodnar debated whether to compete at nationals, but after discussing it with Coach Borst, they decided they had nothing to lose. Borst helped them with the technological challenges of the online competition, and overall they were pleased with their submission, even if the presentation wasn’t as strong as it would have been in person
While some may have found the less nerve wracking nature of the online competition to be a positive, Bodnar and Zill considered it a negative. Both said they thrive on nerves and gauging their performances based on the judges’ and audience reaction. “I missed the rush of in-person competition,” Zill said.
The goal had been to qualify for nationals, but the duo of Bodnar and Zill finished in the top 60 in the nation at the 2020 National Speech and Debate Tournament.
“Our goal had been to qualify and our dream had been to compete in person and have that nationals experience with our friends,” Bodnar said. “We accomplished our goal, and while it’s sad that we didn’t get to compete at nationals in person, I’m not too disappointed. We had no expectations going into the competition so placing in the top 60 was an added bonus. It’s a really cool feeling to achieve success when you weren’t really expecting it.”
Zill also competed at nationals in the commentary competition, which he found easier to adapt to the online format. His five-minute speech focused on feelings and dealing with grief. The genuine nature of the commentary event, Zill said, versus playing a character in duo interpretation, better lended itself to an online presentation, resulting in a top 30 finish for him. Learning about adaptability, Zill said, has been the biggest lesson of the last three months.
“I’ve learned how important it is to adapt, not just for something like nationals but in life,” Zill said. “We have no idea how long the changes that have come as a result of quarantine will last, some things may have changed forever, and it’s important in life to be able to adapt to those changes.”
As a rising senior, Zill has one more year to compete. His plan for next year is to serve as president of the speech and debate team, and focus on debate, either pairs or single, with the hope of again qualifying for the national tournament.
In the fall, Bodnar will attend St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he plans to participate in the theater program. He takes with him what three years of competing in speech and debate have given him, including learning to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and better communication skills.
Weekend after weekend of forensics meets, hanging out between rounds with teams from other schools, afforded Bodnar time to get to know his fellow competitors and to forge friendships in a way that many activities or sports don’t allow.
“In high school, it’s easy to get trapped in the bubble of people you know, most of whom are like you,” Bodnar said. “But forensics opened up my world. The people I met were from all different backgrounds, and that exposure is just what I needed moving into college. The competition it provided was an experience like no other. Forensics competitors are fi erce and cutthroat, but we’re also friends, and after competing we go out to eat together and talk. I don’t know of another sport that fosters those types of relationships between competitors.”
(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)