Central Speech Captain Kate Li ranks 11th at NSDA tournament


Rukan Parves

Kate Li (far right) places 4th at January Glenbard West High School Tournament.

William Tong, Online Managing Editor

According to the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, up to 77% of people have a fear of public speaking. Rising Naperville Central senior and speech team captain Kate Li clearly belongs to the other 23%, as evidenced by her recent finish of 11th place in the nation in International Extemporaneous Speaking at the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) tournament, held from June 12 to 23.

After some convincing from her sister, Li joined the Central speech team as a freshman.

“Naperville is pretty STEM-centric, but I was never really good at math or science,” Li said. “Speech team seemed like a way to get on equal footing with everyone else. It was a fresh opportunity, and I wanted to get involved.” 

While she experimented with multiple speech events as a freshman, Li was drawn into Extemporaneous Speaking (Extemp) by the end of the year. Extemp is an event that asks the speaker to prepare a seven-minute persuasive speech addressing a randomly-selected political prompt in half an hour. 

“Nearing the end of the season, they said they didn’t have any extempers for [the] state series,” Li said. “I was like: ‘I’m willing to do research,’ so I jumped onboard.” 

Even though Extemp is considered one of the hardest speech events, it grew on Li.

“Extemp was interesting because it was a good incentivizer to make me get updated on what was happening in the world,” Li said. “Over time it became more and more enjoyable. The more I knew about the world and the more speeches I gave, the more it felt like I was learning how normal high schoolers can think about the world and how to get involved.” 

From her freshman year to placing at the NSDA tournament, Li had quite a few obstacles along the way. At the IHSA sectional tournament her sophomore year, for example, Li was one place off from qualifying for the state tournament.

“Getting fourth place at sectionals was kind of upsetting but also important for me,” Li said. “It told me if I worked harder I could be where I wanted by my junior year.” 

Unfortunately, in her junior year, Li still did not qualify for the IHSA state tournament. 

“I got fourth place again at sectionals,” Li said. “It was another important benchmark for me. It’s really important to remember that not everything you want is totally under your control.” 

But, the setbacks did little to discourage her from persevering toward her goals.

“I want to have the kids learn from these experiences,” Central head speech coach and communication arts teacher Jeremy Lin said. “We gave her time to process this, then the Monday after we came back, we took some time to process why it happened and what [she could] work on. I think Kate definitely recognized her own shortcomings as well as her own strengths, and we played off that as a jumping point as it came down to [nationals].” 

The stay at home order issued due to the COVID-19 pandemic gave Li time to hone her skills for the national tournament. 

“In April and June, I was able to double down on national skills and refine them so I was adequately prepared for nationals,” Li said. “The two weeks before nationals happened in June I was just giving speeches, and in the time I wasn’t giving speeches, I was reading articles.”

The tournament is held in a different city each year in June. This year, it was originally planned for Albuquerque, N.M. However, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, it moved online, presenting a new challenge for Li.

“You lose the personal element that’s usually present,” Li said. “Sometimes the energy of the room can hype you up and make you give a great speech in the same way that maybe you’ll let it get to you and screw up your speech. It’s just you looking into the camera instead of the faces of a bunch of different people.”

Ultimately, Li faced  243 of the country’s best speakers, climbing  to an 11th place finish in the semifinal round of the NSDA tournament, the only competitor from Illinois this year and the first person in Central’s history to achieve such a ranking. 

“At nationals, it was the perfect storm,” Lin said. “She felt really good, we worked a lot on what the questions were going to be, she did a lot of research on her end. It was a very, very nice surprise.”

Li’s commitment to improving herself has made her a highly respected member of the team. 

“Since freshman year Kate has always been very self driven,” Michelle Kee, a 2020 graduate and former speech team captain said. “She works very hard. I commend her especially on the fact that when she started out, we didn’t have a varsity extemper to mentor her.” 

Along with rising senior Bilkisu Tariq, Li will be one of the speech team’s captains in her final year at Central. She is determined to use the opportunity to build a long lasting legacy for the team.

“In the future, I have to focus on providing proper coaching for novices, and making sure the tournament we host annually, the Tournament of Roses, goes smoothly,” Li said. “I have to make sure everyone is welcomed into speech and knows they can make speech a new home.”