Clear skies and rippling water surrounded then-freshmen Grace Zhao and Samhita Kumar, ’23, as they rowed together in a kayak on their class trip in San Francisco.
Despite the stunning scenery, Zhao’s mind’s-eye remained firmly on a far away beauty: the courtroom of her next mock trial competition.
As she rowed, Zhao continued to recite her mock trial speech over and over again until not only did she completely memorize it, but Kumar did as well.
According to Kumar, the following week, Zhao gave a perfect closing argument.
“That’s just how she is,” Kumar said.
Zhao’s passion and dedication to mock trial stems from her Folsom Sutter Middle School debate team.
“I felt super passionate about researching the cases, working with my team and the spontaneous improvisation you have to do in debate,” Zhao said.
Since Country Day doesn’t have a debate team, Zhao joined the mock trial team, recognizing its similarities to debate.
To Zhao, the best part of mock trial competitions are the opening statements, which are completely scripted.
“I really like to plan and choreograph my opening statements down to vocal inflections and hand gestures,” Zhao said.
Kumar described Zhao as hard-working and detailed.
“In the time that I’ve known Grace, if there is something that needs to be finished or something she wants to do, she will get it done,” she said. “She has a lot of talent at so many things, but she will always take the extra step to make sure something is the best it can be.”
Mock trial head coach Rick Lewkowitz said he saw great promise in Zhao as a freshman, making her the first freshman case-in-chief attorney in his 25 years of coaching at Country Day.
“It’s been a real pleasure to be able to coach Grace. She’s extremely talented in her analysis and her ability to articulate points,” Lewkowitz said.
Unfortunately Zhao’s time in mock trial was temporarily cut short during her due to mental health issues exacerbated by COVID-19, causing her to take a gap year in between her freshman and sophomore years.
A year later, Zhao was eager but nervous to return to mock trial.
“In my heart, I knew that if I returned to Country Day, I would return to mock trial,” she said. “I was scared to return to mock trial in the beginning because I quit under such difficult circumstances.”
Kumar said Zhao’s return to mock trial can be attributed to her inspiring mental strength.
“She’s managed to come back as a better version of herself,” Kumar said. “After everything she’s gone through, I can tell she’s happier and more comfortable with herself.”
During the summers before her junior and senior years, Zhao competed in the Gladiator Mock Trial competition, a one-on-one mock trial tournament in Atlanta, Ga.
Zhao placed 28th out of 44 her first time and 4th out of 36 her second.
She attributes her improved success to her confidence.
“When I entered my hotel room for the first competition, I could hear my competitors preparing their speeches through the walls. It was like a madhouse,” she said. “The second time I was a lot more prepared. I knew how to prepare and what was expected of me.”
Zhao credits this tournament to her experience against unfamiliar opponents and teaching her a valuable lesson about confidence.
“Even if you don’t have confidence, you just have to act like you do,” she said.
In her junior and senior year, Zhao was named co-captain of the mock trial team.
Lewkowitz said Zhao has all the necessary traits to be a mock trial captain.
“She really tries to help the other students, especially beginners. If I hadn’t named her captain, she would’ve been a captain without the title,” Lewkowitz said.
Lewkowitz said that a proper captain needs the respect of their teammates, a willingness to lead and a selflessness for others.
“Grace has all of those qualities,” he said.
Sophomore Isaac Reynen, a member of the mock trial team, also praised Zhao’s leadership when she helped him in his freshman year.
“Grace made all my worries seem small. When I had a question, she had an answer,” Reynen said.
In September 2023, the mock trial team competed in the Empire Mock Trial competition in Chicago, Ill. for the first time in Country Day history.
“This tournament was a major step up for the team,” Zhao said. “As a captain, I had to push them to reach a new level but also give them confidence.”
In her final year, Grace has extended the role of the captaincy by creating mock trial office hours, in order to further help her team to help every member of the team improve as much as possible.
“I want to see people learn as much as they can because we have so many new faces and so much potential. I want to see them gain the kind of passion for mock trials that I did,” Zhao said.