Nice guys transform into super debaters
Mar 18 2003 12:00AM  By Cathy Grimes of the Union-Bulletin

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The Whitman College students form one of the top policy debate teams in the nation.

Like comic book superheroes, Whitman College debate partners Charles Olney and Thad Blank have two personas.

Away from tournaments, they are friendly, thoughtful conversationalists.

But pit them against another debate team and a metamorphosis takes place.

The laid-back lads with quick smiles vanish, replaced by a dynamic duo who dissect opponents' arguments with machine-gun speed and laser-sharp focus.

This season, the two politics majors became one of the top policy debate teams in the nation after defeating all teams at the Dartmouth College invitational tournament. In April, they plan to claim the championship at their final contest, the National Debate Tournament in Atlanta.

Whitman Debate Coach Jim Hanson believes they can take the title.

``Thad and Charles have a great shot at doing well,'' he said. Oak Harbor's Olney and Boise native Blank converged on Whitman after discovering debate in high school. Partners for three years, they reign in the policy debate arena.

For those unfamiliar with forensics, policy debaters argue the merits of a single topic or resolution each year. The current topic is U.S ratification of one or more international treaties. In years past, teams have locked horns over democracy in Africa, foreign policy and renewable energy.

During competition, teams argue for or against the resolution, regardless of personal feelings. Blank said the Whitman team has earned a reputation for winning debates even though ``we make arguments we personally disagree with.''

``A lot of our arguments are counterintuitive,'' Olney added. ``It's part of what makes it so much fun, seeing things from different perspectives.''

``After a few years of debate, you absorb critical thinking,'' Blank said. ``That makes it difficult to be dogmatic. We question everything.''

They say their success is based on using each other's strengths. When the two find themselves arguing for the topic, Olney is first debater. Blank takes the lead when they are on the defense. Olney claims Blank has ``the word magic.''

``He also has a much better sense of the big picture,'' Olney said.

Blank calls Olney the better technical debater.

``He doesn't let anything slip through the cracks,'' Blank said.

``A lot of the time the debate comes down to one last little argument,'' Olney explained.

Each debate lasts about 2 hours, but feels like 30 minutes, Blank said.

Debaters must listen to high-speed delivery of multiple arguments for or against the topic, then must attack with their own arsenal of arguments, each substantiated with published evidence. Evidence documents are stored in accordion files packed tightly in four sturdy blue plastic boxes. The debaters constantly update the files.

``It's a process of keeping up on news and seeing what new arguments will work,'' Blank said. ``You can't predict what someone is going to say, but you can predict the issues.''

``A lot is a matter of preparation, having something to say in response to nearly everything,'' Olney said.

They recounted a debate at which their preparation strategy paid off. At a match at California State University, Fullerton, early in the season, they found themselves against the then-top team in the country. Olney said the opponents had shredded teams with a single seemingly unassailable argument. Olney and Blank decided to bait a trap. Olney spoke first, sprinkling the bait.

``After the first five words, we knew they took the bait,'' Blank recalled.

Blank and Olney won the debate.

The two said other extracurricular activities and their social lives suffer during debate season, but the work has improved their studies. Both have earned 4.0 grade point averages. Olney said he digs deeper into subjects than he would without his debate background. Blank agreed.

``One thing debate has taught me is that I rarely have a full grasp of an argument,'' Blank noted.

``There's always more,'' his partner added.

``The frustrating thing is to get to what you thought the truth was, and then find it doesn't exist,'' Blank finished as Olney nodded.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in May, Olney moves to Michigan State University, where he will be an assistant debate coach.

Blank said he has not made post-graduate plans.

``I just want to do something nonacademic for a while,'' he said.

Reviewing their three-year career, the two note only one regret. While they shine as speakers, humor has not been a part of their repertoire. Judges tend to like humor, they said.

Olney heaved a mock sigh: ``I've gotten maybe two laughs in my entire career.''