Loc Nguyen promised Matt Heimes — his freshman oral communications teacher at Lincoln Southwest High School — he’d attend a meeting to try out for the speech team. Heimes was the coach and thought Nguyen would be a good fit.
“I was like, ‘I probably could try and get into some extracurriculars in school, so I might as well go to the meeting and see what happens,’” Nguyen recalled after school last week.
But on the day of the tryouts, as he was delivering his speech, Toni Heimes — Matt’s wife and the Southwest debate coach — stepped in.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll take Loc,’” Toni Heimes recalled. “When I walked in and I heard him speak, I knew he understood the cadence of what he needs to have as a debater.”
From that point, Nguyen became a student of debate. He shined on the Southwest debate team, qualifying for nationals his sophomore year. Nguyen would study his competitors, learn new techniques, keep up with the headlines.
“We were going to try our best,” Nguyen remembered saying. “We were going to win state, go to nationals and all that stuff.”
In a way, he was right, but just a year off.
Nguyen and debate team partner Anton Angeletti won the state title in the public forum division earlier this month, helping the Silver Hawks to their first debate team title in school history.
The reason he had to wait? Just weeks before his junior season was set to kick off, it ended before it even started.
‘Never stopped thinking about debate’
In October 2020, doctors diagnosed Nguyen with a rare disease.
It’s called osteosarcoma, a cancer that attacks the long bones in the arms and legs of mostly children and young adults. So instead of spending his days in the classroom with his peers, Nguyen was around doctors, mostly at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
His schoolwork was put on hold. Debate, too.
“It kind of hit us hard when we (he and his partner) both couldn’t really debate with each other just because I was gone all the time,” Nguyen said.
For eight months, he chose to undergo chemotherapy, and by the end, Nguyen opted to amputate the lower part of his leg instead of trying to save the limb.
“I feel like for me, as a 16-year-old, I didn’t have the ability to actually process all of those decisions,” he said.
His teachers pushed back his schoolwork until the end of the year, but it wasn’t his classes he was thinking about during his treatment.It was debate.
“Even on the worst days, I never stopped thinking about debate,” Heimes recalled Nguyen telling her later.
Even though he wasn’t at school, Nguyen was still a part of the team, taking part in Zoom meetings, judging practice rounds, cheering on his teammates. The one person he texted while in the hospital was Angeletti.
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They’d met on the debate team as freshmen, and while Nguyen was in the hospital, he would share “some pretty personal stuff” with his friend. They were looking ahead to their senior year, and talked about potentially partnering up if Nguyen made his return.
“It was something we’ve always talked about,” Angeletti said.
Then, in June 2021, came the news. Nguyen would be returning to school. The doctors had declared that he finally was cancer-free.
‘Biggest comeback ever’
When Nguyen returned to school last fall for his senior year, he carried the same expectations for the upcoming debate season he had that summer in 2020.
This time he would have a new partner in Angeletti to compete alongside in the public forum division, which pits teams of two that present arguments over current issues.
“I had to make this season really important,” Nguyen said. “It would be my biggest comeback season possible, and I guess that kind of played out exactly how I wanted it to.”
At a tournament at Millard West — one of 11 the pair competed in this year — Nguyen and Angeletti qualified for the Tournament of Champions, a prestigious national high school debate tournament in April.
Then they had their sights set on national qualifiers and later state, held earlier this month at Southwest.
Preparation for public forum debates involves studying academic journals and newspaper articles, dissecting prewritten arguments and forming a cohesive story to persuade a judge to side with you. One of the topics they were tasked with debating concerned the benefits of increasing urban agriculture in the United States.
“I’ll just sift through the arguments and be like, ‘How can I make this better than what’s already been given?’ Or, ‘Are there any creative ways to turn this argument into something a little bit different?,'” Nguyen said.
Prepping for the tournaments called for some pretty late nights, but earlier this month, Nguyen and Angeletti’s hard work culminated in a gold medal at state in public forum. Southwest as a team won titles in three of the four divisions, as well as the overall state title.
Winning state has eluded the Silver Hawks since Southwest opened. To be a part of the first championship debate team was special, said sophomore Jack Watermolen.
“It was just an amazing feeling to be like, ‘Oh, my God, we actually did that,'” he said.
The team is a tight-knit group, Heimes said. Her room is often an after-school hangout spot for the students, and they also enjoy bonding outside the classroom. Chemistry, especially between debate partners, is key to being successful, the team will tell you.
While Nguyen and Angeletti didn’t qualify for nationals, they are glad their season ended on a good note. They do have the Tournament of Champions next month, but they don’t plan on competing. They just need a break from the debate grind, Nguyen says.
“I think just in hindsight, thinking about the whole season, it was really exactly what I wanted it to be,” Angeletti said.
‘Outlet to use my voice’
Nguyen tries to focus on the positives.
There’s plenty of bad things in the world — cancer, for one — that it’s easy to get “stuck in that cycle of thinking” about what could wrong, Nguyen says.
“So when I got older, I tried to shift that narrative that there are so many good things that are out there in the world that we sometimes take for granted,” he said.
Nguyen has taken his journey in stride. Earlier this month, he spoke at the Nebraska Make-a-Wish “Wish Ball” and told his story as a “wish kid.”
“It was a huge adjustment being a recent amputee,” he said then. “It was a battle of self-image and self-acceptance. Over time I came to accept that this would ultimately be my new normal, and when I started to accept my circumstances, so did everyone around me.”
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He was recently named the National Speech and Debate Association Nebraska student of the year. In her letter nominating Nguyen, Heimes wrote that he has become a “mentor” for novice debaters, and came back his senior year with the same “rigorous, competitive spirit as before.”
“There is no doubt that this adjustment has been difficult,” Heimes wrote. “Loc’s wit, quiet resolve and positive spirit have helped him move through these challenging days to return to what he knows and loves best, his debate family.”
Nguyen wants to give back when he’s older. He plans on studying computer science on the pre-med track at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
He’s even mentioned creating a nonprofit to raise awareness about childhood cancer, in addition to helping pediatric patients through mentoring — and using the skills he learned on the debate team as a guest speaker to share his story.
“It’s given me an outlet to use my voice.”