Maintaining Balance in College Sailing

Published on April 12th, 2016

by Eric Goldsobel, The Badger Herald
To most University of Wisconsin students, Lake Mendota is just an aesthetic perk of campus — a place where you can drink a beer on the terrace during summer, or walk across its frozen water during winter. But to a select group of students, it is the birthplace of a national powerhouse built by their own hands.

That group comprises the Wisconsin Sailing Team, which can be seen practicing on Mendota each Tuesday and Thursday throughout the spring and fall. In its fleet of 18 boats, the team spends upwards of a few hours each practice preparing for regattas across the United States against some of the best collegiate sailors in the country.

Yet there is a stark distinction between Wisconsin’s sailors and those of the elite sailing schools from the East and West Coasts — Wisconsin’s members are not varsity sailors.

The team recruits almost exclusively from a regional pool of sailors, raises its own funding and is completely student run. To bring the program to its current level of success takes not only personal dedication, but a large time commitment from members as well, Soren Walljasper, sailing team co-captain, said.

“There’s a lot of facilitating work that not only I, as a co-captain, have to do but we have an entire board of 15 people helping as well,” Walljasper said. “On that board, we all have specific roles — there’s a fundraising chair, a regatta-coordinator chair. The captains and board members are really in charge of the team.”

While varsity programs are supported by the school’s athletic department staff, members of the Wisconsin Sailing Team must secure the necessary funding and coordinate event planning on their own. Plus they are competitive on the course too. At the Navy Spring Women’s Regatta in Annapolis, Maryland, Wisconsin finished in eighth place out of 19 teams.

“We’re one of the only club teams in the country that is able to compete at a varsity level,” said Laura Wefer, coed and women’s A-Division skipper. “Our funding is not the same as other teams that we’re competing against. We don’t have the same travel which they do. Most of those teams will fly to events whereas we’ll be driving 18-plus hours depending on where we’re going.”

While many of these aspects seem like potential drawbacks, Walljasper, Wefer and the team’s coach David Elsmo agree that they only serve to strengthen the bond between sailors and their love for the sport. With the time commitment and dedication to the team, Wisconsin Sailing Team members are more invested in the outcomes of races and the work necessary to get there.

“People are really here because they want to be here,” Walljasper said. “I haven’t heard of anyone on this team getting burnt out of sailing. A lot of my friends who I sailed with in high school, who went out to East Coast programs, have told me ‘Yeah, I’m pretty burnt out of sailing.’ I find that our members are really focused and committed because no one is making them do any of this. We’re all here because we want to be.”

The team’s unique blend of top-flight sailing, mixed with a club-level atmosphere, allows sailors an inviting environment. From running the team to competing in national events, Wisconsin Sailing Team members get a full experience, and draw a wide variety of interested students.

Wefer, whose family has a long history of collegiate-sailing, has been on the water since she was a child and knew she wanted to sail in college. Walljasper has been sailing since middle school, but also knew that he wanted to continue the sport in college. Yet, not every member of the team has such a strong-rooted background in the sport.

“It’s an entirely different process for everyone,” Wefer said. “Some people on the team grew up sailing and knew they wanted to be on the team because they’d heard about Wisconsin sailing for a while. But then we have people who see us at the student-org fair and decide they want to join the team. Some of them and come out here and are now some of our best sailors. The girl I currently sail with had never sailed before getting to college.”

With all of the hard work and dedication put into the program, Wisconsin Sailing Team has become one of the predominant sailing schools in the country. Due to the reputation the program has earned, and the quality sailing afforded by having Lake Mendota in its backyard, the Midwest coed and team race qualifiers for ICSA Nationals will be hosted by the team from April 15-17.

Both of Wisconsin’s coed and team race squads are expected to qualify for nationals, held in San Diego this May.

Through all of its hard work and dedication, the team has performed admirably and its homegrown identity makes reaching this level all the more special.

“What we have here is unique, without question,” Elsmo said. “On a personal level, I have a lot of pride in being given the opportunity to work with these sailors. Every result they get shows their excelling nature, and that they deserve to be where they are. They did it.”

With only a week separating the team from qualifying for nationals and the prospect of again sailing against elite programs, the Wisconsin Sailing Team’s sights are set on San Diego.

But a problem only a club team could have reminds them of just how far they’ve worked to reach this point — the team will spend its remaining week putting its dock in place in Lake Mendota.

Source: The Badger Herald

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