John and Heather Mickelson a speech and debate duo

Erin Mullins

When John Mickelson heard speech and debate was going to shut down at Lovell High School, he decided to save it. 

John’s wife, Heather Mickelson, said she was volunteered to be a co-coach by her husband before she even heard anything about the program desperately needing coaches. 

“He works (custodial) at the high school, he came home one day and said, ‘Oh, they asked me if I wanted to be a speech and debate coach. That or the program’s gonna go away’. And I said, ‘You don’t know anything about speech and debate’. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, but I told him that I’d do it if you could be my assistant.’” 

Heather said being volunteered to do things is sort of the dynamic of their relationship. 

She thought coaching would be a good opportunity to get to know the kids, and the two are in their third year coaching. 

“It’s a good program,” she said. “So, I’m glad that we could help save it. I don’t know. I don’t know how long we’ll stay as coaches for speech and debate, but until somebody else comes along that maybe has more qualifications,” she said. “We’ll keep it there because the kids need that opportunity.”

Heather said the club is good for kids because it teaches them to think analytically, take a step back from their own perspective to consider different current events with a fresh lens, and helps them to be less defensive around those who have different beliefs. 

The last speech and debate event the students competed in was at Riverton on February 9 and 10. John said that Katie Badget and Lillian Wenstrom made it to semifinals for their duo and that Badget made it to semifinals individually.

The biggest issue since Christmas has been sickness, Mickelson said. Club members have been out with sickness frequently, unable to attend meets. Despite the rough start to the year, he said the rest of the season and the future of the team in the coming years is looking strong. 

The Riverton meet was the best team performance since Christmas, he said. 

“We have a lot of freshmen that are growing, and I see high hopes for our future. We ended up not having any of our guys place, but I see a lot of potential with Districts,” John said. “Then potentially qualifying for Nationals, with State coming up.”

John said that he always tells the kids that you are either winning or learning. Even when someone doesn’t place well at a meet, it is an opportunity to learn from what went wrong and continue to work hard. 

John is taking four club members to the speech and debate district tournament, which will be at Rock Spring February 29 through March 2. In order to compete at District, one has to qualify by having enough points throughout the season, he said. 

Members Ireanne Anderson, Badget and Wenstrom will be competing at District. Rachel Pope also qualified, but has prior obligations and will not be attending.

A new addition to the team this calendar year is junior Matthew Allen, who has only competed in a few meets but is competing in congressional debate. Besides Allen, the rest of the team not qualifying for District are freshmen. 

State speech will be in Cheyenne on March 7-9 at Laramie County Community College, John said.

John said it has been great to see kids grow through the club. 

“I remember when Katie Badget came to us in her sophomore year, and I thought she was really timid and shy. But all of a sudden, she gets up there to perform, and it’s a whole new world where she is loud, boisterous and expressive. And she’s not afraid to put herself out there.”

Heather agreed that it is good to see kids progress in the club, especially with the lack of face-to-face communication due to technology. 

“Most kids have their face in technology. They are so obsessed with it. You go anywhere and everybody’s got their phone out, and they’re looking at it. Or you even go to the grocery store to see people with air pods so nobody will bother them,” she said. 

Heather said it is important for kids to be able to have social interactions as they grow up and not always be surrounded by technology. 

John said that society at large is not teaching kids how to be resilient nowadays. It is important to be able to stand back up after a struggle. 

“Everybody has their struggles. And you don’t know what everybody else is struggling in,” he said. “I think the best thing we can do is to give kids hope, and that things are going to be OK. And there’s a future for ‘em all.”