Luke Tillitski’s love for speech and debate started with a morning announcement at his south Florida high school that mentioned the debate club would have free pizza at its first meeting.
Three years later, he’s a speech and debate national champion.
Tillitski, now a rising senior at Charlotte Latin high school, won first place at the 2018 National Speech & Debate Tournament in Fort Lauderdale last month. He won in the Congressional Debate: Senate, where he debated three different bills.
In the final round, there were 24 other students left. Tillitski won by five points among the talented pool of competitors, said his coach Jonathan Peele.
Peele, Charlotte Latin’s debate team teacher, works with students to improve both their understanding of political issues and their presentation skills.
But Tillitski, Peele said, is a natural.
“I say it as a joke, but it’s really actually kind of true that I am his travel agent because he works incredibly hard and he’s incredibly gifted,” Peele said.
To make it to Nationals, Tillitski had to qualify at a competition in February. Peele said Tillitski has put in countless hours at school leading up to his win in June. “Then I would go home, and I would work more,” Tillitski said.
In the Senate Congressional Debates, the students aren’t divided by parties, but by those arguing for or against a bill.
Tillitski said he often argues on the side of something that doesn’t align with his personal beliefs. But as a result, he’s been forced to learn both sides of an issue — something he said has helped him gain a greater empathy for others and their beliefs.
“Not only am I more prepared to then attack those arguments in the real world, but I’m also more likely to understand where those people are coming from,” Tillitski said. He said he plans a career in public policy or speech-writing.
Peele competed in the National Speech & Debate Tournament himself in 1999.
He said going back to nationals and watching Tillitski take home the win was a professional dream come true. His said his favorite part was watching Tillitski hear his name called onstage.
Weeks before the tournament, he made Tillitski imagine and talk through the possibility of winning — something he thought was an important part of having the much needed confidence to actually win.
If Tillitski were to win, he told him to take the first place trophy and hold it up center stage.
When Tillitski’s name was called for first place, he did just that.
“Just seeing him hold the trophy up, with the whole crowd out in front of him cheering, was — there aren’t even words for the moment,” Peele said.