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His new school didn’t have a debate team, so this track star founded one

His new school didn’t have a debate team, so this track star founded one

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 2

When weighing his potential transfer to McKinley Tech ahead of his junior year of high school, track star Ayotunde Ejiko came across one major negative: McKinley didn’t have a debate team.

Ejiko had participated in debate for five years. It was a big part of his life, just like track and field. He and his partner at Phelps High in Northeast Washington had recently traveled to the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues’ JV nationals.

Ejiko made the move to McKinley and his track career soared. Next month, he will participate in three events at the Nike Indoor Nationals in New York. But the transfer didn’t mean Ejiko gave up on pursuing his other obsession.

There wasn’t a debate team at McKinley, so he created one. That team didn’t have a coach, so he became one. Now, the Cornell commit isn’t only thriving on the track, but spearheading McKinley’s debate program while balancing his passions.

“He has willed this team into existence through a combination of determination and charisma,” said David Trigaux, the director of programming and development at the Washington Urban Debate League. “He overcame things others couldn’t here.”

Ejiko took a debate class at Browne Education Campus in sixth grade and was hooked.

The course had a heavy workload, and a few students dropped it early on. But Ejiko welcomed the work, said Marcia Cole, his former middle school debate teacher and coach. He became one of the most committed members of the team.

Debate helped him become confident in his voice after moving from Lagos, Nigeria, to D.C. at age 11.

“When I first got to the U.S. my accent wasn’t really good, debating was the one thing that made sure I trust myself and made sure I’m public speaking and I just talk to people, feel comfortable with what I’m saying,” Ejiko said. “Debate was a huge part of my life, so I didn’t want to lose it.”

Ejiko attended Phelps for his first two years of high school but ran indoor track for McKinley during his sophomore year because Phelps didn’t have an indoor team. He participated for Phelps’s outdoor team again that spring and watched McKinley win a D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title. He transferred to the Trainers that summer.

“I realized if I want to get better I have to make some sacrifices and be in a better place I think is best for me,” Ejiko said.

Still, Ejiko wasn’t ready to stop debating. He got a librarian to become the team’s sponsor, but he was essentially alone in starting the program from scratch. He also had help from Trigaux and the Washington Urban Debate League, a nonprofit launched in 2014 aiming to foster high-level debate environments and competitions for local public school students, in whose events McKinley participated.

He attempted to recruit teammates, a tough task in a new school. When he did, he would train them himself.

The player-coach and his McKinley team didn’t enjoy the success he had experienced in the past, but he took pride in watching the development of his largely inexperienced peers.

Ejiko has missed some track meets, debates and practices over the course of the past couple years, but McKinley track Coach Nathaniel Metts said it hasn’t stopped him from being a leader on the team. His debate partner this season is also his track teammate, freshman Saadiq McCauley.

“It hasn’t deterred him athletically or academically, I think it’s just one of those things where he put his heart and soul into it,” Metts said. “He wanted to always have more on his plate.”

In his first outdoor track season at McKinley in 2023, he won three D.C. State Athletic Association championships — in the 55 meters, 200 and 400. Last month, he won DCIAA indoor titles in the 55 and 300.

Cornell reached out in late August 2023 after his outdoor success. He committed in December, choosing the Big Red over a top five that included Princeton, Georgetown, Howard and George Mason. His long-term goals are to represent Nigeria at the 2028 Olympics and go on a prelaw track at Cornell to become a lawyer.

“He wears a Cornell shirt or jacket, like literally every day. He’s major advertising for the university,” Metts said. “He wants his teammates to pursue that same vision.”

Ejiko will run in the 55, 200 and 4×200 relay at Nike Indoor Nationals. In a cruel twist, the final indoor meet of his high school career is scheduled on the same weekend as McKinley’s last debate of the year.

Ejiko will help the debate team prepare and check on them over the phone throughout the day to ensure success — one of the last times his busy schedule will conflict in this way.

He hopes to find a coach or teammate willing to take up his debate post after he graduates. He wants the club to be a part of his legacy as much as his track records.

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