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Behind the Scenes at the Union: Dave Elsmo

Outdoor UW Director Dave Elsmo

Wisconsin native Dave Elsmo lives and breathes the outdoors. He discovered his love for sailing at the age of six, a passion that led him to become a sailing instructor and a member of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (UMN) Sailing Team. Ten years ago, he joined Outdoor UW at the Wisconsin Union as the head of sailing instruction and head sailing coach, two positions he held for seven years. A couple years ago, he became the sailing program manager, and, in September, he transitioned to Outdoor UW director. Dave’s contagious enthusiasm for sailing and all things outdoors makes him the perfect fit for director, a position in which he works directly with University of Wisconsin–Madison students to help foster their own passion for recreation.

There is no off season for the outdoors: when one season ends, a new one begins, bringing with it a new array of sports and opportunities. I was lucky enough to get to talk to Dave about his decade with the Union, the ins and outs of his director role, and his advice for how people can get involved in the outdoors this winter. Don’t let the frigid temperatures and snow fool you—there are always plenty of fun ways to get outside with Outdoor UW, no matter the time of year!

How long have you worked for Outdoor UW?

When I moved here in 2011, Outdoor UW didn’t exist. It was two different programs: the Outdoor Program Office and Outdoor Rentals. I’ve worked here a little over 10 years, if you look at us through that transition. 

What brought you to the Wisconsin Union in the first place?

I did my undergraduate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and I came to Madison a lot to compete with the UMN Sailing Team. I was also the assistant director of the Wayzata Sailing School in Minnesota. Sailing is a very small industry, and the communities are even smaller, so in an effort to find some vertical mobility in the industry, I hoped to take on a director role elsewhere, since I knew that my boss wasn’t going to be leaving anytime soon. The Hoofer Sailing Club wanted to hire a full-time employee to run their instructional program as well as coach the team. I found out from some friends that the Hoofer Sailing Club had actually modeled that role after what I was doing at Wayzata. Fortunately, my sister lived in Madison, and I was looking for an opportunity to get closer to family, so it was kind of serendipitous. Applying was the right move at the right time, and the stars aligned for me to move down here. I’m a Wisconsin native, born in Racine, Wis., so it was nice to move closer to family and find a space where I could grow. 

What roles did you have before being named Outdoor UW director this fall?

For seven years, my role was head of instruction and head coach. I managed up to 100 instructors and all the lessons associated with the program, and, in the spring and the fall, I coached the competitive Wisconsin Sailing Team at least three days a week as well as traveled to and coached some of the higher-level events. Two or three years ago, I moved into an advisory role as the sailing program manager. I’d say 60 percent of the job was advising the Sailing Club, 20 percent was overseeing facilities and 20 percent was overseeing the boat maintenance facility shop. When the director position opened up, my colleagues encouraged me to apply for it, so I threw my hat in the ring, and here we are. 

What does a typical day-in-the-life look like for you in your director role?

Typical days are not a thing for us at Outdoor UW. There’s some seasonality to what we do, so in that sense, seasonality creates some sort of stability in our days. We mark our weeks with at least one meeting, where we pull all the staff together and see what we need to work on. Generally, I have at least one or two student-staff meetings or student advisor meetings on any given day. There’s some mechanical stuff sprinkled into the day, like keeping up with emails, but a lot of my day is taken up by drop-ins. Students will come in and ask questions, forcing me to think on my feet to help, which I find fun. Helping students is why we do everything else. 

It sounds like your job is never boring, since there’s always something keeping you on your feet. 

It’s very enjoyable, but it’s also a constant challenge. The best part is when the students reach out unsolicited. Students will come in, ask questions, hang out, or want to pass things by me. And in those moments, you know that they’re not just there because they feel like they need to be there; they’re there because they want advice, help, an opinion, or just to vent.

What is the most exciting part of your job? 

We are only here because we want to work with the students. They make all the rest of this worth it, without question. But the worst part is that, if we’re lucky, we spend four years working with student leaders, but then we know that we’re going to lose them. 

I also really like days like today, when I’m going to show our new staff what we have in the shop and teach them how to do maintenance on motors. Is that directly part of what my day-to-day expectations are? No. But it’s an opportunity to work with students and teach them a skill that they can take with them. The students are why we’re all here. 

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The most challenging part is definitely the mechanism of the university. You might have to cross-reference 15 different policies to figure out if you can do something or not. That sort of thing takes a lot of time to understand, and then I have to distill that down to tell students why we can’t do something that might be simple for a private business to do. 

I understand that you’re a big fan of sailing in your free time. Tell me a bit about your experience with sailing: how long have you been sailing, how did you get into it, and what’s your favorite part about the sport?

I consider myself very fortunate that my father was a sailor, so it was something that we did as a family on Lake Michigan in Racine, Wis. My parents put me in sailing lessons at the age of six, probably to get rid of me for the day. During my first sailing lesson, it was windy, and my instructors just sent us all out. I crashed on the rocks and said I’d never do it again. But, of course, the next day, I was dropped back off at sailing school, because that wasn’t an option. From the second day on, sailing really stuck in me as a critical part of my mental makeup. 

I’ve been doing competitive racing since I was seven or eight. After college, I did a tremendous amount of personal competition, often racing seven or eight times a week. On a Saturday, for example, I would race in the morning and do a different race in the afternoon. When I moved to Madison, I did a lot of national and some international travel. I do a lot of distance racing in the Great Lakes. I also ice boat, which is sailboat racing in the winter months.

I think the thing that draws me to sailing is the constant challenge of it. The race course is never the same, the competitors are never the same, the boat’s never the same, your team is never the same. Every day that you get together, you’re working on something. That challenge draws me in. 

The risk is also very enjoyable to me, having to keep storms and waves and people’s physical safety in check while you’re trying to push a boat as hard as you physically can. It’s managing a business in a free market. We know certain things, but we can only forecast others. What we can work on is our teamwork, our boat and making sure that our business is running really well. We play our cards and then we come back, debrief and go out and do it again. There’s never been a race that was an exact copy of a different one.

Wow, I don’t know much about sailing, but that all sounds incredible. 

If you don’t know much about sailing, you can do exactly the opposite of what I do and go out and just enjoy a nice calm day. A lot of people do that, but I can’t turn off the competitiveness. Even when I’m out sailing with my wife, I want the boat to go as fast as possible.

What advice do you have for people who want to get more involved in the outdoors this winter and beyond? 

A lot of outdoor activities have this perceived barrier to entrance, associated with either cost or transportation. A lot of people who are in outdoor activities either learned from their family or their friends, but for many people, this isn’t a part of their community or personal background. Because of this, people often don’t want to go into something so new and risk a sense of failure. I think getting involved outside is a three-part thing: finding an educational opportunity, not taking it all on at once, and finding a way to reduce either one of those two barriers.

Finding ways to educate yourself and try out different sports is what our rental program is all about: reducing that financial barrier of access to the outdoors. Say you want to go camping. If it’s just you in a bubble and you want to go camping, there’s going to be a great financial burden, since you’ll have to buy a tent and a sleeping bag, and you’re probably going to want a sleeping pad and a lantern for some light. Finding a way to camp as a group will reduce that risk and allow you to try a little bit at a time, rather than diving headfirst into the fire of it all. 

We’re also going to launch a large catalogue of courses on a variety of outdoor skills, from starting a fire to wilderness first aid. Through Outdoor UW, you can take little nibbles and see what you like and what you don’t like. 

Are there any exciting Outdoor UW events coming up that our members and guests should keep an eye out for?

Yes! Winter Carnival will take place Feb. 7-12, and there’s going to be a wide array of fun activities and food offerings at the Union. Interacting with a frozen lake and outdoor activities in such a cold climate is new to many people who may not live in areas that freeze like we do, so everyone should come and participate in the Winter Carnival events. 

We’re still going on camping trips, even with the colder temperatures. The Hoofer Ski and Snowboard Club has a lot of trips out west planned. Our classroom sessions for winter kiting kicked off recently, and soon we’ll start over at University Bay Fields on the ground, teaching people how to use the kites. As soon as Lake Mendota freezes, we’ll start the riding lessons where people use skis and snowboards and a kite to propel themselves across the lake. 

Some weekends, we have upwards of 300 students participating in Outdoor UW events and activities. If there’s an itch, there’s probably a scratch around here.

Thank you, Dave, for chatting with us about all the wonderful things you do to support students’ and others’ outdoor adventures through Outdoor UW. You don’t need to be a UW-Madison student to enjoy the Wisconsin Hoofers clubs or Outdoor UW. So, what are you waiting for? Plan your next adventure with Outdoor UW today by clicking here

Note: Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Author: Abby Synnes

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