Free State junior achieves highest national speech and debate honor

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A Lawrence high schooler has reached a prestigious milestone after scoring in more than 375 rounds of speech and debate competition so far.

Free State High School junior Anwen Williams has earned the National Speech and Debate Association’s highest honor, the degree of premier distinction.

Williams said she’s been on the Free State speech and debate team since her freshman year and has since noticed her improvement – even outside of debate, such as in her English classes.

“I didn’t care about Speech and Debate very much my freshman year, but now it’s one of my favorite things to do, and it’s nice to see work pay off over time,” Williams said via email. “On the NSDA website and this other website called Tabroom, you can also look back and see your past points/rankings, so it’s cool to see how your scores and placings at tournaments have improved as you’ve gotten older and better.”

Students recognized with the degree of premier distinction must accumulate 1,500 competition points during their high school careers. A student earns 1 to 6 points for each round of competition, and Anwen said she’s participated in more than 375 rounds so far.

Fewer than 3% of global NSDA members earn the honor before graduation each year, according to an email from district spokesperson Julie Boyle on Tuesday.

Williams is the second person on her team to reach the mark this year. Free State senior Sophie Racy in January also earned the degree of premier distinction.

“This milestone is a celebration of the hundreds of hours Williams has spent preparing, practicing, and competing to hone communication and leadership skills,” Boyle said in her email.

According to Boyle, Free State speech and debate coach Kelly Thompson shared that Williams is a two-time state finalist; an NSDA national qualifier; a member of Free State’s four-speaker debate regional runner-up team; the winner of 13 tournament championships in the 2024 season, to date; and an undefeated competitor in international extemporaneous speaking in 2024.

“When we attend the national tournament, we also get to travel, which is really cool,” Williams said via email. “My freshman year we were in a van for seven to nine hours driving to Kentucky, and last year we flew to Arizona. I also like Free State’s Speech and Debate community; everyone is very hardworking and motivated, but also supportive and caring.”

Learn more about the National Speech and Debate Association on its website,

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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