Dylan Quigley has been to Los Angeles six times and never seen the Hollywood sign.
Last year, he was in San Francisco for almost a month and never saw the Golden Gate Bridge.
Quigley is an expert on topics ranging from immigration to Supreme Court decisions to agricultural subsidies. His best friends live in places like Dallas, Chicago and Berkeley, Calif.
“We’re a close-knit community who comes together in hotel ballrooms every couple weeks, but no matter where we are, the community is the same,” he said.
Quigley’s life is consumed by these things as a debater on Kansas University’s squad. But Quigley, a fifth-year senior from Wichita majoring in political science and philosophy, is about to leave this life he loves. After nine years of debate, starting his freshman year of high school, he’s about to age out of debate. To finish that career, he’d like to add one last win on his record — a national championship.
“It doesn’t matter if you win the first one, it only matters if you win the last one,” he said. “There’s no pickup debates. When you’re done, you’re done.”
These nine years of debate, starting at Wichita East High School, have culminated in an incredibly successful career for Quigley, who recently won one of the biggest tournaments of the year at Wake Forest with his partner, Sean Kennedy. The win was exhilarating for Quigley, who says debate gives him an outlet.
“I can’t do windmill dunks on the basketball court, and I’ve never been an athletic guy. But I’m still pretty competitive,” he said.
The season’s debate topic, which this year is immigration, is released at the beginning of the summer, and the team takes off running with research. That work does not end until March.
“You want to get one step ahead of your opponent, so you want to get the newest articles, the newest research, the most innovative arguments as quickly as you can,” he said. “If you’re not working at all times, you’re going to fall behind. It is very unlikely that anyone will be making arguments in March based on research they did over the summer.”
The team fills containers full of research, each of which weighs slightly less than 50 pounds so they can check them for flights. One lucky team member gets to carry on the printer, and Quigley said that teammate gets saddled with all the jokes about taking the office with them.
A big part of the team’s success, Quigley said, is debate coach Scott Harris. Harris said it’s the team’s passion that makes them so good, with one team winning the national championship two years ago.
“It’s a very addictive activity that’s hard to let go,” Harris said. “It’s one of the greatest joys you can have as a coach is to watch students grow and learn and improve and go from largely unknown individuals in the college debate community to people who are looked up to.”
Harris plays a huge part in the team’s success, but so do the assistant coaches and team members who aren’t competing. Quigley said debate weekends are three days of nonstop reading and debating, and those people give them food and make sure they’re physically capable. It’s a lifestyle that’s hard for many to understand.
“It’s hard for anybody who doesn’t live the life that we live to understand why we’re gone so much, that we can’t go out,” Quigley said. “I spend my life traveling from campus to campus to hotel to hotel speaking at an incredibly high rate of speed and using minute details of the immigration system to defeat other undergraduates in college in detailed discussions.”
After living that life — which included learning how to speak at more than 300 words per minute — it’s going to be hard to move on, even though Quigley has accepted a job as a debate coach at Dartmouth.
“I’ve learned to live with that nagging feeling right there for the last nine years — you should work, you should work, you should work. And what do I do when that’s gone? I don’t know,” he said. “Now, in order to be happy, I need some sort of knife digging in my back practically to move forward. So what happens when that goes away? I don’t know. It’s scary. I think I’ll be depressed for a while.”
He’ll also be leaving the community, which has permeated his life so much that he and his three roommates make up the top four debaters at KU. He said everyone cries at their last debate precisely for that reason, but he’s grateful for the experience.
“There are two people out of all the graduating seniors out of every year, only two people a year win their last debate. You can’t make that your only way of life, because otherwise you’ll be the old sports dad sitting around talking about the state football championship in 1962,” he said. “I’ve had to make peace with myself that that might not happen.”