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Flathead High speech and debate member wins Student of the Year

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | April 5, 2024 12:00 AM

Flathead High School senior Rachel Ottman received top accolades, being named the 2024 Student of the Year for the Montana West District of the National Speech and Debate Association.

To be considered for the award, coaches in each district of the National Speech and Debate Association are invited to nominate a graduating senior, “Who best represents the tenets of the association’s Code of Honor: humility, equity, integrity, respect, leadership, and service,” according to the association.

Ottman was honored to be selected for the award by a committee of coaches who select a winner each year. 

“I appreciated it a lot because I feel like it’s a difficult thing to excel at because it’s such a competitive event [activity],” Ottman said.

Flathead assistant speech and debate coach Sean O’Donnell nominated the three-time national qualifier. While in speech and debate, Ottman competed in Extemporaneous Speaking, Impromptu Speaking, Legislative Debate and World Schools Debate.  

“Rachel is a determined individual who, despite tremendous competitive success, always places others before herself,” he wrote in his nomination letter. 

He said the team captain leads and mentors others with a level of maturity and reliability that earns the respect and reliance of teammates and coaches.

“She has consistently been the quiet leader who does all of the thankless tasks to help others be successful. Rachel manages our extemp[oraneous] file without complaint, which requires her to spend hours every week updating the file and troubleshooting our very old computers. On a regular basis, Rachel asks if there is anything she can do to help her coaches, always willing to add additional tasks to her busy schedule,” O’Donnell said.

Ottman joined the Flathead team during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was an adjustment for everyone as competitions went virtual and competitors adapted to appearing before judges on screen in an activity whose heartbeat is physical presence.

“However, Rachel handled it with ease, often assisting her veteran teammates and dinosaur coaches. Through her dogged determination, Rachel has built herself into not only one of the best competitors in Montana, but also in the nation,” he said.

Last year, the veteran short prep event competitor set her sights on debating at the national level and applied for a spot on Montana’s World Schools Debate team to represent the state at nationals. Despite no prior experience in this style of debate she was selected and led the team to 15th place in the nation. Her performance at nationals also resulted in winning the second-place World Schools Debate Top Speaker award following a tiebreaker — out of nearly two thousand individuals — a “stunning achievement,” O’Donnell said. He noted this was the highest placement for a Montana speaker at nationals in more than 15 years. 

Yet she doesn’t define herself by her success.

“What makes her truly unique is that she combines an incredible work ethic and drive with an even more acute sense of compassion,” O’Donnell said.

He highlighted Ottman’s role as a mentor.

“... we have an unusually young squad filled with first-year freshmen and sophomores. As one of the only experienced competitors this year, Rachel took on the role of mentor and confidant. She’s consistently dubbed an ‘extra’ coach to help those students grow, a role that often takes her away from her own self-improvement,” he said.

Ottman also shows grace with her losses, ready to congratulate winners with a hug, even when it’s a teammate who wins at state.

“Rachel’s mentorship went much further this year than expected. During a fundraising activity this September, Rachel and five other speech and debate students were right next to a shooting incident at a local store. For those students present, Rachel was a constant source of support, as throughout the days and weeks that followed she consistently monitored the group’s emotional recovery,” he said, referring to an incident where a man was shot and injured during a parking dispute outside a south Kalispell store.

O’Donnell summed his nomination up by saying she is an ideal ambassador.

“Rachel has often said that speech and debate has been the most important part of her entire academic career. It is an activity that she believes changed her life and can change the lives of other students and competitors,” he said.

Ottman said she was glad to have had the opportunity to compete in speech and debate throughout high school. In the fall, she plans to attend the University of Montana, majoring in psychology. She is also thinking of either double majoring or minoring in child development.


Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.