Marquette High student Sarah George sat in a Zoom meeting with hundreds of fellow finalists at the National Speech and Debate Association Tournament awards ceremony Saturday, June 20.
When her category, Prepared Prompt Speaking, came up, she and the other five finalists activated their cameras and awaited the announcement of their results, starting with sixth place and moving up the podium.
George waited the longest. She was named national champion.
"It was very surreal," George said. "My mom was right next to me for awards. We cried in each other's arms."
George, a rising senior at Marquette, has advanced to nationals in each of her three years of high school. Last year, she made it to the finals and earned third place in Expository Speaking.
This year, the national competition took a different form due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of performing their speeches in front of a live audience and judges, George and her fellow competitors had a week's window in which to record their five-minute presentations for consideration. Prepared Prompt Speaking was actually a new category this year because its predecessor – Impromptu Speaking – was not possible.
Contestants in George's category chose a quote from a list of prompts and fashioned a speech around it. Rather than going for the more well-traveled path of words from world leaders or historical figures, George chose Michael Scott from the TV show "The Office."
"It was about 'good grief,' when he talked about the importance of emotion, crying, grief and how society thinks it's bad and wrong," George said. "My speech was about the importance of grief as a coping mechanism and the importance of emotions as a way to handle adverse situations in life."
George said she was inspired to choose this prompt after one of her friends passed away suddenly last fall.
"It's a really important message that I wanted to speak to, especially to a teenage audience," George said. "I wanted to inform and let other teenagers in the nation know that grief is not something to be afraid of. That's what the National Speech and Debate Association promotes. It's not all about the award. It's more about your message being spread."
Two of her Marquette teammates earned national recognition as well. Megan Cline was an octofinalist in Storytelling, and Shruti Punnachalil placed in the top 40 in Extemporaneous Debate.
George was also a semifinalist in Expository Speaking and a quarterfinalist in Commentary. She dedicated her national championship to her family and friends.
"Speech and debate is so inclusive and has really high standards for their debaters and speech competitors," George said. "You have to be able to embrace all different types of populations. It's a way for people to bring different ethnicities, backgrounds, mindsets together in one place and just listen."