by Gena DiMattio
Canton Central Catholic High School, Class of 2011
“When leading large meetings, I still feel a rush of adrenaline that I can trace back to my first ever round at Carrollton over a decade ago.”
The first tournament weekend in October of 2018 marked 11 years of my involvement in Speech and Debate.
Sitting in a few rounds of the Carrollton Novice competition was surreal. How could it have been 11 years ago that I was 15, wearing a suit on a cold Saturday, delivering an Original Oratory speech for the first time? Back then, I did not know (during those first three rounds) that the next four years of competition would change my life.
Back to last year, when the tables had turned.
I was an observer in the back of the room, watching my novices present for their first time. Between rounds, I gave mini pep-talks to calm first-time competition jitters; I reminisced with a few varsity judges who were so excited to be on the other side of competition; I hugged away some tears about a memory block; and I offered up a spare hair-tie to a young lady who came running down the hall before her second round, panicked because hers had broken.
Without a doubt, having accepted my freshman-level English teacher’s invitation to attend an informational Speech-team meeting during my first year of high school—was the singular most impactful decision I have ever made.
Speaking competitively changed my life and every day I channel my “inner speechie” as a Digital Marketing manager at Highlights for Children—in a role where communication is key to getting things done and where I am required to present to senior leadership on a regular basis. When leading large meetings, I still feel a rush of adrenaline that I can trace back to my first ever round at Carrollton over a decade ago.
For eight years, I came back to my home district religiously in November for the Perry tournament, and again in February and March for [OSDA] Districts and States. It never gets old: standing at the State Tournament after five rounds of judging competition, exhausted on the second day, to hear a pregnant pause before the event chair declares “and these are your state finalists!”
However, each year I would drive away from the tournament and a melancholy would come over me that would last the rest of the weekend. I regularly wished that I could be there more than three weekends per year. I wish I could have run workshops, attended team fundraisers, and dedicated every Saturday to the activity that had my heart.
I loved Columbus, but my life then was two hours away from the district that had been part of my DNA for so long. I had zero connection to the Speech community in Central Ohio and, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you which OSDA District Columbus fell into, let alone what schools even had teams.
It was at 2017’s State Tournament that I lamented this to my former coach, who once again was going to work some magic into my life. She introduced me to Leslie Muhlbach, the head coach at Gahanna Lincoln High School.
Over that summer, Leslie and I met in a local coffee shop and talked for almost two hours about Columbus District, her vision for Gahanna, and the things she wanted to do to impact the OSDA using alumni outreach and networking.
I was all in.
“To empower young people with the skills and voices necessary to move the world forward is a humbling experience, and I can speak first-hand to what having that in my high school experience has done for my life and career.”
Gahanna is lucky—they have an established team, experienced coaching staff, and an administration that believes in the importance of speech and debate. Some of the other schools in Columbus are not as fortunate yet, and many programs are in their infancy with brand new coaches and only a handful of students.
If we wanted to grow Columbus, we were going to have to come together as a district, and Leslie was leading the charge.
The coaching staff began having regular meetings in August to bring Leslie’s vision to life. We formulated a plan for a series of “Intensives” for the month of September—nnce per week, two-hour working sessions with competitors in an entire category. This allowed for students to do the “heavy lifting” regarding writing, learning how to flow, floor movement, and literary analysis, among other skills. We ran speaking drills, practice rounds, and group discussions. By the first official practice in October, students already were well on their way toward successful competition. (Leslie even had the coaching staff create lesson plans to share with the entire Columbus District, as a tool for new coaches.)
In what I feel is the most powerful testament to the Columbus District, Leslie championed a workshop for coaches and students—open to anyone who wanted to attend. First-year coaches, novice speakers, varsity speakers, local alumni, and district chairs all came to the high school for a day, to work together and teach useful speaking drills, and to review manuscripts, frameworks, and sources. Sure, in a few short weeks we were going to be competitors—but for one day, we truly were a district.
And we wanted to help each other grow.
As the end of my first year of coaching drew near, I could reflect on all the eye-opening, inspiring, and (at times!) nerve-wracking experiences—with fondness. More often than not I find myself so proud and amazed to see the growth of this community in real time. To empower young people with the skills and voices necessary to move the world forward is a humbling experience, and I can speak first-hand to what having that in my high school experience has done for my life and career.
I hope that people know how lucky they are to have people like Leslie at the helm of this growing, ambitious district—people who are dedicated to helping others channel the most powerful tool at our disposal: our words.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We want to hear from OSDA (and OHSSL) alums! Let us know how speech and debate has/have influenced your life by clicking here.