At first glance, Gabi Yamout and Jacob Goldschlag might seem very different: girl, boy, junior, senior. She’s of Egyptian heritage, and he’s Jewish.
But for the past two years, the two La Costa Canyon High School students have been debate partners, reaching the highest levels in elite national competitions. In April, they will make their second appearance at the prestigious Tournament of Champions, an annual high school debate contest held at the University of Kentucky. Participants must earn their way into the tournament by performing well at other regional and national competitions. Last year, Gabi and Jacob placed in the top 60 debate teams nationally.
“They are absolutely great students and they get along well with each other,” said Bill Smelko, a San Diego attorney who has volunteered as a debate coach for Gabi and Jacob, and several other students from La Costa Canyon and San Dieguito Academy in recent years. “It’s a fascinating tale of two great families.”
Both Gabi and Jacob began debating as high school freshmen, and they devote much of their free time to refining their skills — the two said they spend roughly 20 hours each week, for most of the year, on debate-related activities. They also attend summer institutes devoted to debate preparation, including courses at Harvard University and the University of Michigan.
Jacob said he started with debate for an age-old reason — his mom made him. He quickly warmed to the competition, however, because he enjoyed the camaraderie and the chance to interact with upper-classmen as he began his high school career.
The two acknowledged the pressure of debating at the elite level: “There’s lots of stress,” said Gabi. But the contests also get their competitive juices flowing.
“I like to win more than I don’t like being stressed,” said Jacob.
Jacob and Gabi focus on policy debate, which could involve arguing either side of a particular issue. This year’s “resolution,” which is a debate topic used across the country, is about the non-military ocean exploration or ocean development. The topic is general enough that it could include a range of specific issues, from off-shore oil drilling to development of algae-based bio-fuels.
In order to prepare for their debates, the students have to research their topics deeply enough to be able to argue on either side of each issue.
Both the students and their coach said the skills learned in debate carry far beyond the competitions, to other high school and college classes, and even to professional endeavors.
“What this actually does for kids, it’s amazing,” said Smelko, who debated in high school and college, and also has taught debate skills at Harvard’s summer program. After a 25-year hiatus from debate, he returned to coach his own son at St. Augustine High School, and then, at the request of students and parents, to work with debaters at La Costa Canyon and San Dieguito.
Students improve their research and writing skills, build their confidence at public speaking, sharpen their organizational abilities, and learn to make cogent, focused presentations, Smelko said, and that the debate skills he learned decades ago continue to benefit him in his law practice.
Jacob, who will graduate this year, has his eye on the University of Michigan, where he will likely study political science, and then possibly go on to law school. He’s also considering UC Berkeley, USC and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which has offered him a debate scholarship.
Gabi plans to continue with debate during her senior year, and will work with a new partner, another member of La Costa Canyon’s debate team.
The two students, who both have grade point averages above 4.0, are involved with other campus activities: Jacob is on the school swim team, Gabi used to play basketball, and both are involved with school clubs.
But debate prep takes up a lot of their time.
“It’s hard to find time for other things,” Gabi said.
They’re also grateful to Smelko, their volunteer coach, who plans to travel with them to Kentucky.
“We’re so in debt to him,” said Jacob.
Like all teenagers, Gabi and Jacob might occasionally find themselves at odds with friends or family members, when their debating skills could come in handy. Their parents aren’t having any of it, according to the teens.
“I’ve been told, ‘This isn’t a debate round. Stop it,’” Jacob admitted.