Knowing the ins and outs of an argument that involves complex research is the type of skill one expects a high paid attorney to have not a high school student. Yet debate competitor Nicky Halterman has been arguing his way to the top of the nation’s most persuasive teenagers for four years.
Halterman, who will be a senior at Norman High this fall, recently finished as runner-up in the Lincoln-Douglas Debate National Championship. The week-long National Speech and Debate Tournament in Kansas City was mentally taxing and challenging, but Halterman thrives when he’s put on the spot and is tasked with convincing an audience his viewpoint is the correct viewpoint.
Of Norman, Halterman is the son of Ron Halterman and Jill Irvine. During the competition, he competed in 17 rounds, facing a new opponent each round and generally alternating between the affirmative and negative side of the debate. Two hundred fifty-four students competed in the debate. The debate tournament’s topic was that the United State’s government ought to prioritize the pursuit of national security objectives above the digital privacy of its citizens, Halterman said, which competitors received about a month before the tournament.
“It’s been so much in the public focus because of the NSA and all of the controversy surrounding it,” he said. “It’s always nice when you get a topic that everyone’s interested in. I got to read a lot of theory about it, so now it’s great because whenever I read article’s about the NSA, I look at it completely differently.”
Each round of the tournament lasts about 45 minutes with each competitor reading two prepared speeches after which competitors utilize the rest of their time to give free form speeches in rebuttal. Halterman said competitors had about 4 minutes total to create their free form speeches during each round. With more than 150 pages of evidence, Halterman said he has to think on the fly and be organized so that he can take out materials that are relevant to whatever point his opponent makes.
“A lot of the end rounds are about how fast you can pull out your materials and use them evidence-wise... After we write our speeches, we often sit around thinking ‘OK, what is everyone else going to say?’ and try and come up with everything possible on the affirmative and negative.”
“We go in as prepared as possible to hear anything,” Coach Kasey Harrison added.
This intense preparation began with brainstorming in class on ways to affirm and negate the tournament’s topic. After school let out, work continued with practice debate rounds between Norman students and then debate rounds with students across the state, Harrison said.
Halterman practiced with Lawrence Zhou, from Bartlesville, who went on to win the Lincoln-Douglas Debate National Championship.
“We ended up hitting each other in the finals,” Halterman said. “We didn’t see that coming; that was a surprise.
“I have the best memories of the final round because of the venue and I knew my opponent so well. It was really nice to have that chance because we’ve been debating each other for a long time.”
“Three of the top four finishers of the nation were from Oklahoma,” Harrison said. “That has never happened before.”
Since competing in debates his freshman year, Halterman said he has found it isn’t as difficult to switch between affirmative and negative positions as observers might think.
“I tend to always passionately believe whatever I’m saying at the time, and once I’m done with a resolution, I almost never have a firm opinion on it. Once you argue each side so many times, it becomes impossible to wholeheartedly choose one. You tend to fall in love with different parts of each case instead of one side or the other.”
Competing in debates is one of Halterman’s best academic experiences, he said.
“It’s critical writing. It’s critical research. It’s public speaking. Once you’re in debate for three months you’re never scared of a presentation in class ever again,” Halterman said. “But honestly what keeps me competing is being a part of the debate and acting community; that so many of my friends are there.”
Halterman said his family has played a big role in supporting him throughout his debate preparation; helping him with research and speech writing. Halterman added that the national competition was special because his family, who was out of the country at the time, watched him compete in the tournament’s final round via a live stream online.
“My family is great and never increased my stress level. They’re the perfect support,” Halterman said. “My mom has always wanted to watch me debate and its never quite been a good time, but the final round was the first time she’s ever seen me debate and that was a lot of fun.
“The two of us have had many debates, but she had never seen the real thing.”
On top of Halterman’s runner-up finish at nationals, Norman High School’s debate team was named a 2014 National School of Excellence for debate by the National Speech and Debate Association, which honors the top 20 programs in the US. This moved Norman High School up 20 places from it’s 40th place recognition in 2013.
Points that determine the top 20 schools are given to each school based on number of rounds completed, wins and loses. Two other students from Norman High School besides Halterman helped contribute to the school’s top 20 honor — Nathan Thompson, who competed in eight rounds, and Marita Ellis, who competed in four rounds of a congressional debate competition.
“I kinda feel like we crashed the party of those schools who have coaches in every discipline and are breathing that rarefied air,” Harrison said. “It was a good surprise to do so well.”
Breaking news, severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, sports scores from The Norman Transcript are available as text messages right to your phone or mobile device. You decide which type of alerts you want to receive. Find out more or to signup, click here.