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Columbia Falls debate state champ relies on family strength to overcome

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | May 26, 2024 12:00 AM

Eleanor Hollingsworth was only two days old when she came under the care of her great-grandmother. 

Her biological parents were tied up in drug addiction. But she never got near their world — growing up with great-grandmother Rae Hollingsworth, great-uncle Jeff and great-great-grandmother Thelma Hollingsworth in Columbia Falls.

“I know that a lot of kids that are adopted, going through foster care and stuff like that can be traumatic. But for me, I've all I've ever known is my great-grandmother, she's always just been my mom. She's just so incredible, she's this really spunky lady that has purple hair,” Hollingsworth said. 

The Columbia Falls senior, who is looking to turn her skills as a state championship debater into a career as a lawyer, has endured hardships, but she said her loved ones helped her through it all. 

As a teen with an older parent and grandparent, Hollingsworth said she’s always been hyper-aware of the fact that her mom is so much older than other kid’s parents. As she prepares to leave home to go to college at the University of Montana in Missoula this fall, it’s one of her biggest concerns. 

“Don't get me wrong, I would not trade my mother for anything in the world, the impact of that woman — she quite literally saved my life. I wake up every day and I'm happy to see her,” Hollingsworth said. “Especially now as I'm getting older and heading into college, it's definitely worrying knowing that I'm going to have to worry about losing a parent sooner than most of my peers.”

Two years ago, Hollingsworth had to face grief first-hand when she lost her great-grandmother, who she found unresponsive in the bathroom on Christmas morning. Dealing with that grief and trauma took a toll on Hollingsworth, who loved Thelma dearly. 

“She was just the most incredible woman I've ever met. And I just think more people should know that. I mean, this woman rode a motorcycle for her 95th birthday. Are you kidding me?” Hollingsworth said.  

It was hard to find the motivation to do well at school while dealing with this grief, but the teen has endured finding a way to push forward. 

Being involved with speech and debate has been a source of both solace and triumph. She’s had the same debate partner for three years, Kynsleigh Gould. The two became best friends over the years and are planning to room together in college. 

This school year, they competed in policy debate, where students present the same argument throughout the entire season. Their case was for expanding supplemental security income to all U.S. territories, which means allowing citizens there to apply for social security benefits. 

They placed first at the Class A state tournament, with the entire Columbia Falls High School Speech and Debate team sweeping the competition and receiving the most points ever earned at state.   

Hollingsworth said their first case revolved around implementing a federal jobs guarantee, but they weren’t having much luck with it. Coming off of a winning streak year, she said they knew they had to switch it up to start succeeding.

“We went from winning almost every tournament … to our senior year running a dud case. Not really, we were placing well, but not winning many tournaments. Then we changed our case and absolutely devoured state and divisionals,” Hollingsworth said. 

The tournaments looked a bit different when she got involved as a freshman in 2020. Because the pandemic led to social distancing requirements for many high school sports and activities, those first tournaments took place over Zoom. 

It was an interesting way to be introduced to the extracurricular, but she was hooked. She felt the need to be involved with something that wasn’t a sport, and with her interests in academics, it was a great fit. 

Speech and debate was a good way to engage her brain and fulfill her competitive drive, she said. And like many other students who take part, it made her come out of her shell. 

“I was so shy and speech and debate gave me a lot of confidence, which is really nice. And also, I was just good at it. Like just kind of naturally, obviously, you have to work towards being better and better and better. But kind of from the get go, I was a little rock star,” Hollingsworth said.

Speech and debate is one example of Hollingsworth’s drive to learn and challenge herself, a quality that her mom said she’s always had. 

“She was always a bright kid,” Rae Hollingsworth said. “You know, kind of a little stinker sometimes, but she’s always been real smart. She learned everything very quickly. She's just kind of the love of our lives.”.

Hollingsworth seemed to have the skills to be a debater long before she joined the team. 

“I just remember times when I told her well, ‘No, you can't do that.’ And then she wants to know why: ‘Well, can you explain to me why?’ It was always kind of a little battle of will,” Rae said. 

Attending the University of Montana in the fall, Hollingsworth is planning to major in journalism with plans to attend law school and eventually become an attorney. She originally considered the University of Washington in Seattle but opted to live somewhere close enough to drive home in case of an emergency. 

She received good scholarships to attend school in Missoula and said she plans to judge speech and debate competitions when she moves there.

“I'm so excited to be in Missoula because as much as I love the Flathead Valley, I've been here for 18 years ... I'm excited to get out there and try new things. But, at the same time, I’m also a little anxious about going out and figuring out how to be an adult on my own,” Hollingsworth said. 

She’s not sure what area of law she’d like to enter but is looking forward to learning what interests her most along the way as she takes classes as an undergraduate. 

As she heads off into the world, Hollingsworth will have a little piece of home with her — a necklace given to her by her late great-great-grandmother. 

“She knew I always wanted it and I've literally never taken it off since,” Hollingsworth said.

Columbia Falls High School holds its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2024 on Saturday, June 1 at 11 a.m. in the high school gym.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.