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Word Warriors

updated 09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 01:00AM

THERE'S A MYSTERIOUS HUM, AN almost junglelike chatter, emanating from room 208 of the University of Missouri at Kansas City's Royall Hall, but to Linda Collier's ears it's sweet music. And why not? It's just the 12 members of her UMKC debate squad practicing tongue-twisting drills to jack up their speaking speed. "People say it sounds like everything from buzzing insects to a group of monks chanting," she says with a smile.

But for Collier, 46, a former general-practice lawyer who is now the team's coach, it is also the sound of success. This, after all, is the final morning of a mentally and physically rigorous preseason minicamp, an idea she borrowed nine years ago from pro football's Kansas City Chiefs to whip her debaters into championship form. And it works. Just last spring her team beat out the likes of Harvard, Northwestern and Cornell to become the first ever to capture the national championship for best overall record in both the Cross Examination Debate Association and the National Debate Tournament. Now they're back to defend their titles.

So for five days before school starts, her debaters research debate subjects, then advance arguments pro and con at rates up to 450 words per minute—roughly 100 words faster than they'll speak in competition—-at times with a pencil in clenched jaws to force them to enunciate more clearly. Then come 24 hours of survivalist games and nature walks at a remote camp. "We're not robots," says assistant coach Myron King, 23, a former squad member. "The work ethic sets us apart."

Surprisingly, in 1986, the year Collier, a UMKC alumna, was approached to fill the part-time job of reviving the school's defunct debate program, there was nothing to indicate that her squads would be anything but also-rans. For one thing, Collier, who at the time was busy with her burgeoning law practice, had never before coached debate. For another, UMKC had scrapped its squad in the 70s during a budget crunch, making it difficult to recruit high school debaters. Even so, UMKC finished 47th out of 250 in their first year and took home an award for best new collegiate debate team. "I've always been hypercompetitive," says Collier of her determination to succeed. But also nurturing. "We call her Mama Roo," says King. (The school's mascot is a kangaroo.)

By Thanksgiving, Collier, who lives with her second husband, public relations executive Michael DeMent, 42, in suburban Leawood, Kans., decided that "students were the people part that I was missing in the practice of law." The next year she gave up her career to coach and teach at UMKC full-time. "Most people thought I was nuts," she says. Not her husband, though, who saw her spirits immediately brighten. "It was the difference between night and day," he says.

And for both Collier and her debaters, it was total commitment. This school year the squad expects to sacrifice extended weekends (which means assignments to make up), September through March, to take part in tournaments. While the team's $12-per-person-per-day budget on the road and long-standing No Fun rule—which prohibits partying as long as the squad stays in play in a competition—don't exactly add up to a freewheeling social life, most students seem to savor the experience. UMKC senior Jenny Barker, 21, says, "It's given me a lot more confidence and self-esteem."

Collier can relate. Growing up in tiny Iola, Kans., the daughter of an auto-parts store owner and his wife, she recalls trying out for the lead in every high school play—and getting it. "Competing against other people for roles attracted me to drama," she says, and she gets a similar rush from leading her troops into battle. For those who care—and she does, immensely—collegiate tournaments, usually eight preliminary rounds followed by four or five runoffs among the finalists, can be as emotionally charged as a high-stakes basketball game. "It's a roller-coaster ride for the kids and the coaching staff," she says.

Defending their titles won't make matters any easier, but Collier can't imagine finishing anywhere but first. "I remember childhood incidents when I felt devastated when someone beat me in a race," she says. "I hated it. I don't like to lose."

ALEC FOEGE
MARY HARRISON in Kansas City

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