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John French ’13 Qualifies for Debate World Championship

Debating U.S. intervention in Syria, the death penalty and proxy voting, John French ’13, Director of Training of the Philomathean Society (Philo), clinched the title of first-place speaker by one point in the Roxbury Latin Invitational Tournament on Sunday. His victory qualified him for the 2013 World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championship (WIDPSC).

“I was surprised. I didn’t think I deserved it. I thought [the other debaters] I had come up against during the day were better than me… I never expected [to qualify],” said French.

French will travel to Durban, South Africa in the spring to participate in the world championship, which will be held from March 30 to April 5 at the Clifton School, according to the WIDPSC website.

“I’m pretty excited and nervous,” French said. “I’ve never been to South Africa. I went to Australia in the summer, so it’s going to be a shorter flight than that–but I hear that it’s still around 17 hours, and being six foot three… there’s not too much space.”

Though French is not looking forward to the long flight, he is excited to debate with competitors from all over the globe. “It’ll be cool just to be in another part of the world, meeting and going against other top [debaters].”

He added, “In terms of hopes… it’d be nice to keep Canada from winning again.”

In the championship’s 24 years of existence, 17 winners of the competition have been from Canada, four from the United Kingdom and two from the United States.

The competition consists of four events: parliamentary debate, impromptu speaking, interpretative reading of a prose piece or a play and either persuasive speaking or “after-dinner” speaking, which involves giving a prepared speech that uses humor to make an argument, according to the WIDPSC website.

French plans to deliver his persuasive speech on “why Iraq is a failing state right now and what needs to be done to help it,” based on a paper he wrote last spring for History 538, “When States Fail.”

The resolutions for the debates are announced 45 minutes beforehand, and for the impromptu speaking event, competitors have only two minutes to prepare.

In preparation for WIDPSC, French will continue to practice with Philo and will work individually with Bob Hutchings, a teacher and speech coach at the Pike School who advises Philo.

French attended Pike in Andover, where he was a member of the speech team coached by Hutchings and gained experience in impromptu speaking. He recalled that he won a national speech competition in middle school “because [Hutchings] is a great coach.”

“[Hutchings] will help me especially with interpretive reading because I’m terrible at that,” French joked.

After coming to Andover, French joined Philo at the recommendation of Hutchings. Though he signed up Junior year, he did not start debating at the interscholastic level until the middle of Lower year.

His first competitive tournament, which took place at Deerfield Academy, is also one of his favorites.

French recalled, “I was debating with Ben Romero ’12 [as a novice team], and I just really enjoyed getting into it. There were three debates–I remember one of them was actually over the death penalty. [The other two] were on mercy killings and whether public schools should receive less money.”

At Worlds, French will compete against students from Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, the United States, England, South Africa, Lithuania, Pakistan, Cyprus, Argentina, Botswana, Israel, India, South Korea, Zimbabwe and Germany, according to the WIDPSC website. Past competitions have taken place in England, Cyprus, Botswana, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, Lithuania and Australia.