Emmalee Taylor and Nerea McKnitt

Emmalee Taylor, left, and Nerea McKnitt get ready to perform their duo piece, titled "How to succeed in high school without really trying." The Ridgway juniors qualified for nationals. (Courtesy photo)

This is a tale of competitive sports, persistence in the face of setbacks and hard work. While there’s plenty of determination, teamwork and long hours of practice, this story does not involve any hail Mary passes, brightly lit stadiums or grueling physical workouts. That’s because the sport in question is competitive speech, an activity which the students of the Ouray/Ridgway Speech team have poured plenty of sweat, blood and tears, but mostly passion, into.

At a recent meet in Palisade, Ridgway juniors Nerea McKnitt and Emmalee Taylor qualified for nationals, which will take place in June in Albuquerque, if not canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

“We just gave it our all, for sure,” said Taylor, adding that she really hopes they get to attend nationals, which is six-day event, with long days buzzing with dedicated teens from across the country competing in various events from the dramatic arts to debate.

The journey to qualify for nationals was a long and windy road for the two girls, who began their high school careers on the speech team in Ridgway as freshmen. Though they had coaches their first year, which they described as instrumental in helping them improve, by their sophomore year the team was without a coach, not attending meets and dwindling in size. It looked like the writing was on the wall for Ridgway’s high school speech team, which at this point consisted of just Taylor and McKnitt. That’s when Ouray’s speech team reached out, offering to combine the two teams into the Ouray/Ridgway high school team.

It was back on. The team, now composed of two girls from Ridgway and two girls from Ouray, began to return to meets to compete across the state.

While the umbrella of speech and debate as a high school sport encompasses many events ranging from research-based speeches and debate to performative recitations of dramatic monologues, Taylor and McKnitt specialize in two events. In “Duo Interpretation,” they perform a 10-minute dramatic piece together while abiding by the event’s strict guidelines, such as refraining from touching or looking at one another or using costumes. In “Dramatic Interpretation,” each competitor performs a 10-minute dramatic monologue.

“For 10 minutes you get to be someone else, with a different story,” McKnitt said of her passion for dramatic interpretation. “You can cry in the room, you can scream in the room, and it’s really cool to just be able to act it out. You get to show the audience all these emotions like anger, frustration and sadness. It’s really powerful for me. I personally love doing drama, because you can touch so many people with your piece.”

Taylor shares McKnitt’s passion for the evocative power of the pieces, and expressed her appreciation for the supportive and friendly environment of the competitions, which can be demanding. The meets usually begin early in the morning and run until late at night, with sometimes-stressful components of performance anxiety, being judged, performing several times throughout the day and hoping to make it to the next round. Yet the competitors feel more united than, well, competitive.

“We are friends with everyone at the meets, in both events,” Taylor said. “When we’re not performing, we’re all hanging out, talking. It’s just such a great community, and I love speech so much because of that. And I like being able to see other people’s pieces. It’s like being able to go to a theater and watch theater for free all day. You can just laugh all day, and some of the pieces are really sad, so you also get that emotional aspect of it.”

While competitive performance speech may seem like a niche passion, the skills gained from the activity go far beyond the meets where they perform in front of five fellow competitors and a judge, who at the nationals qualifier, simply hold up a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate their score.

“I’m more outgoing, more ready to talk to people, and I’m not as nervous when performing,” said McKnitt, adding, “It’s also helped with time management skills. I’ve learned to take criticism from coaches and others.”

The team’s coach, Ouray Middle School math teacher Christine Coyer, has a background of participating in speech and debate during her high school years, where she discovered firsthand just how meaningful and lasting the experience was. When she learned that McKnitt and Taylor had qualified for nationals, she couldn’t contain her excitement.

“I was over the moon, crying, hugging other coaches,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard, and they really deserved this opportunity. I couldn’t be more proud or excited for them.”