Claire Chen: one of the most-decorated debaters in PAHS history

Emily Yun, Senior Staff Writer

With a medal from her latest victory at the Milpitas Coast Forensic League SuperDebate 2 tournament in hand, junior Claire Chen recalls the nerve-racking moments right before the final round.

Junior Claire Chen celebrates a victory at the Milpitas Coast Forensic League SuperDebate tournament on Jan. 20. This victory and two others qualified Chen for the CFL State Qualifier Tournament in March, which got canceled due to COVID-19. “It [CFL tournaments victories] was a really big deal for me,” Chen said. “Through doing CFLs, I got a good record. It was not only a process of learning my own style of debate, but also gave me a little bit more confidence in my ability to do well.” Photo: Jennie Savage

But she took a deep breath, her hands stopped trembling, and her heart stopped racing.

“The second I got into the round, that part of my brain shut down, and I started working on autopilot,” Chen said. “It was just me and the debate and the argument.”

According to Chen, this wave of emotions is routine for all of her debate competitions.

Chen, who is on the Palo Alto High School Speech and Debate Team, is one of the most-decorated debaters in Palo Alto High School history, according to Paly Speech and Debate Director Jennie Savage.

After receiving a wildcard from the CFL SuperDebate 1 tournament, the CFL SuperDebate 2 tournament, and the CFL Lincoln-Douglas and Public Form tournament, Chen qualified for the CFL LDPF State Qualifier Tournament in March, which got canceled due to COVID-19. Chen is also one of few who qualified for the National Victory Briefs Institute Philadelphia Online tournament this summer.

“She’s an exceptionally hard worker,” Savage said. “She started winning right away.”

Chen began debating in middle school when her parents signed her up for a debate camp. According to Chen, initially she didn’t take it seriously.

“In the beginning, I really disliked it,” Chen said. “But as time went on, I started to learn to really enjoy it. So, when I went into high school, I decided that I would join the Paly Speech and Debate Team, specifically debate.”

As she entered high school, Chen realized that the Paly Speech and Debate Team did not offer Parliamentary debate, the format she had practiced in middle school.

However, changing debate formats was not a big issue for Chen, according to Savage.

“I was so impressed that Claire said, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll just adapt to what you do offer,’” Savage said. “She adapted very seamlessly.”

Once at Paly, Chen switched to Lincoln-Douglas debate.

“You get one topic for every two months or so, and you spend that time writing a case for both the affirmative side and the negative side,” Chen said. “When you go to a tournament, they randomly give you a side to debate, and then you go against another person.”

Junior Claire Chen looks over her case one last time before her round at the James Logan Martin Luther King Jr. Invitational from Jan. 17 to Jan. 19. Chen said she always tenses up before rounds. “They [Chen’s family, friends, and teammates] can all tell you that before and after rounds, I get nervous,” Chen said. “I usually don’t think I do very well in tournaments, but they’re always there to support me and back me up.” Photo: Jennie Savage

Chen prevailed in Lincoln-Douglas debates and became a role model for younger debaters, according to Savage.

“Because she had success so early on in her debate career, she is an inspiration to the other people on the team,” Savage said. 

Ethan Boneh, a sophomore on the team, can attest to this.

She would give me advice when I was starting out,” Boneh said. “A couple times we’d meet up just to talk and work through debate stuff.”

According to Boneh, Chen has not only been an inspiration, but a great support system as well.

“I remember at one tournament, which happened over Martin Luther King weekend, I did terribly,” Boneh said. “But it’s one of my favorite tournaments because of how much fun we had in between rounds.”

As she helps to aid the debate careers of other high school students, Chen has bigger aspirations of her own.

“There is a more personal goal that I have, which is finding my style more and getting to a point where I can give a speech that I feel proud of and I feel confident in,” Chen said. “And there is also a more materialistic goal of, I want to be able to qualify for states and nationals again, especially now that online tournaments are more of a thing. Because now we are having to adapt because of the coronavirus [COVID-19], we can actually have those tournaments, and I’ll actually be more prepared for them to do well.”