GDS Debate Brings Back Its Tournament, With Cameras Rolling

Two teams of GDS freshman debaters at the GDS Invitational. Photos by Kaiden J. Yu.

Over the weekend, GDS hosted its first in-person debate tournament since 2019. As about 200 students competed, two GDS alumni attended the tournament to gather footage for a documentary following the lives of students and coaches who participate in debate in the D.C. area.

The tournament lasted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and offered events for middle and high school students. The documentary, which is being co-directed by Charlie Sadoff ’87 and Gabe London ’95, will focus mainly on the Washington Urban Debate League, an organization that supports local public school debate programs.

“The idea is that we’re going to follow a number of kids, many of whom are here at this tournament, throughout the course of the whole debate season and through the school year,” Sadoff said in an interview with the Bit. GDS is not part of the Washington Urban Debate League, and the film is not centered on GDS students.

Sadoff explained that in addition to showing how debate can change students’ lives, he is hoping the documentary can share the experiences of coaches in the Washington Urban Debate League who have participated in the league as debaters in the past.

Sophomore Michael Dobbs, who was filmed for the documentary during one of his debates, told the Bit, “If I get to be in a documentary, I’m totally fine with that. It’s giving an outside approach to what really goes on. To a lot of outside people, debate’s really weird.” Dobbs and his partner junior Ila Dohrmann (a Bit reporter) made it to the octofinals of the Varsity Division in policy debate.

Science teacher and second-year GDS debate coach Gabe Koo said in an interview, “I believe they are filming a documentary to kind of show the life and the intensity, and the joys and rigors, of debate, especially following around urban debaters.” 

Freshman Alexander Bobo’s binder of debate materials.

This year’s competition features not only the Open Policy Division, which is a debate mainstay, but also two new divisions: Novice Policy Debate and Public Forum Debate. The tournament also serves as a semifinals bid to the prestigious policy debate Tournament of Champions, according to the invitation to the GDS tournament. The GDS tournament has been taking place since the early 2000s, according to Koo, but this is the first time it has run in person since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that teams from six or seven states competed in this tournament.

The documentary is sponsored by the Matthew Harris Ornstein Foundation, which was started by the parents of a GDS graduate who passed away in 2015. According to the foundation website, it was established in honor of Matthew Ornstein, who was a national champion debater and GDS student.

According to Sadoff, his team identified debaters of interest at a summer camp sponsored by the foundation. “We’re also gonna look at them not just as debaters, but in their school lives, in their home lives,” he said. 

Senior Sophie Bronner, who is the captain of public policy debate at GDS, has been helping GDS students prepare for their debates during this tournament. “My goal is to help everyone else on the team, to be as supportive as possible,” she said.

“It’s good to be back in person,” Bronner said. “We’re gonna start traveling more.” Bronner did not debate in this tournament. Koo explained that the GDS students participating in the tournament’s Varsity Division were all second-year debaters.

Sophomore Beck Holtzman speaks during a debate.

She said that the team as a whole is excited, and she is especially happy to see that the younger students are joining the debate team and making it more diverse. In the Novice Division, the top four teams were from GDS: sophomore Beck Holtzman, debating alone; freshmen Lomahn Sun (a photographer for the Bit) and John Morsberger; freshman Emma Renigar and eighth grader Jacob Tobias; and eighth graders Sam Gross and Ananth Mangalam.

Freshman Emma Renigar is part of the GDS debate team and has not experienced the in-person GDS Invitational before. “Socially, it’s nice to see everyone,” she said. “It’s nice kind of having the community of everyone dedicating their weekends to being here and debating.”

“I would say that we lost a couple good years of practices and good competitions, but GDS debate is as strong as ever,” Koo said.

CORRECTION (Oct. 3): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the varsity policy debate octofinals included the division’s final 16 teams. The octofinal round generally includes eight matchups; however, in this tournament’s Varsity Division, only 11 teams made it to that first elimination round, with five getting byes.

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