By: Matt Elsasser
This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Fall 2015 Issue: Volume 12, No. 3
“When I arrived home I promptly failed a midterm. My teacher handed back my test with a look of disappointment, but I had no regrets. One botched midterm was well worth the trip to secure a longtime dream sponsorship.”
Getting your foot in the door of a large company outside of the kiting industry isn’t easy, but it’s the key in being able to gather the support necessary to live and travel as a professional kitesurfer. Using the Internet and a little creativity, I was able to find the kind of sponsor I had been seeking for years, one which would allow me to travel the world while continuing my college education.
It all started two summers ago when my dad, brother and I carved balsa lumber into a flat rocker “alaia” style board. We filmed the process of making the board from start to finish and took it down to the Hood River Sand Bar to shoot footage of whatever chaos we thought would ensue. Without straps, fins, or any rocker I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do anything on this plank of wood, but as we began to film, I realized that a board so simple has very few limitations.
After a few laps on the flat water, I began launching the board off the kickers and sliders in the park, laughing the whole time at how entertained I was. I edited a quick two-minute video of the alaia sessions while on a plane flight to Maui, and uploaded it to YouTube under the name Splinter with little to no expectations. The video was an instant hit. A breath of fresh air in the kiting community, it was something new, entertaining and unconventional. My inbox was overwhelmed with dozens of messages about the blueprints for the board. The truth was that I had no idea what the dimensions were. The board was so crude that most people laughed when they finally saw it close up. As the video’s initial attention began to fade, the real fruits of my alaia labor were, unknowingly, just about to pay off.
While scrolling through Facebook one day I came upon a video contest called “Go Epic with Thule.” Pulled from a group, a semi-finalist was chosen each week and after a couple of months, the best video out of all the finalists would win a free trip to paradise with a Thule athlete. Knowing that
Thule sponsors top athletes in their respected sports, I was all for a free trip but my main focus quickly shifted to snagging a position on Thule’s team.
I immediately submitted the Splinter video to Thule’s video contest and ended up winning the weekly video submission, but there were still many weeks to go before the grand prize winner was selected. With high hopes, I emailed Thule asking if they had any space on their team but they politely responded that, at this time, the team was full. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I received a surprise email explaining that I had won the grand prize! I was both shocked and stoked. Thule’s Go Epic contest had received over one million online impressions with videos from 28 countries stemming from adventure racing, biking, kitesurfing, skiing, snowboarding and surfing. Somehow, the video that my brother and I had created on a whim won!
A few days later, I received a call from Thule’s headquarters in Sweden asking if I would come to Munich and claim my prize at ISPO, the world’s largest action sports trade show. The obvious answer was yes, but I was stuck on California’s Central Coast, in the middle of the winter quarter of my junior year at Cal Poly. It wasn’t ideal timing. Chasing my dreams in Munich meant I was going to have to miss a few crucial days of school right before midterms. As I ran around obtaining clearance from my professors, the looks on their faces were classic. They weren’t happy that I was headed to Munich the weekend before midterms, but nothing was going to kill my excitement about this opportunity.
When I arrived in Munich, I hopped in a cab headed for the ISPO trade show. With no working phone, thousands of people outside the convention center and a pretty tight credential system, it took me awhile to figure out how I would actually get into the event. Luckily, a cute German girl was nice enough to let me use her phone to get a hold of my one and only Thule contact. Walking down the overwhelming slew of aisles lined with booths, I found myself shaking hands and hanging out with the likes of surfing icon Garret McNamara and skiing legend Glen Plake. If I had known what I was getting myself into, my nerves might have gotten the best of me, but everything was moving so fast, I didn’t have the time think. I wasn’t just meeting the American Thule distributor, like you would for most major companies that sponsor athletes. All at once, I was sitting side by side with Thule’s CEO Magnus Welander, meeting all of Thule’s employees and attending Scandanavian press conferences. I can assure you that I learned more during dinner and sitting next to Magnus than I would have learned in a classroom that entire week.
That night, I laid in bed thinking how much had happened in that one day; how many incredible athletes and businessmen I had just met. In that moment, I realized how wild of a weekend it had been. Meeting the guys behind Thule for the first time, I already felt like a longstanding member of the family. The Swedish company and its staff are extremely warm and welcoming. They let me right into their world while ensuring I was comfortable every step of the way. Despite knowing very little about Thule and its Scandinavian culture, from the very start, establishing a working relationship with this company felt like a perfect fit.
The following day I accepted my award for winning the video contest. Listening to legendary athletes like Garret McNamara, Matthias Giraud and Flo Orley praise the video of the alaia project my dad, brother and I had made in our garage was surreal. I went up and gave a nervous acceptance speech on the main stage at ISPO and watched my video play, anxiously surveying the reactions of the massive audience as they watched. Moments after I accepted the award the Thule team manager offered me a spot on the team. My heart stopped. I wanted to scream “hell yes!” and start jumping up and down like a little kid. Instead, I calmly answered with one of the biggest smiles I can remember and we walked back to the booth for a fully catered welcoming party with lots of hand shaking and hugs.
When I arrived home I promptly failed a midterm. My teacher handed back my test with a look of disappointment, but I had no regrets. One botched midterm was well worth the trip to secure a longtime dream sponsorship. In fact, during my first meeting with Thule, when I asked about what kind of projects they would like me to be doing, their answer was, “Think of any trips you want to do, and we will help you accomplish them.” I downplayed my excitement and calmly replied, “Yeah, I think I can do that.”
My journey to become part of the Thule Crew was unconventional and unexpected. It’s been a year now since Munich, and joining Thule has definitely been a major game changer in my career. The financial support of companies like Thule and Cabrinha have sent me to incredible places all over the world, far surpassing anything I could have ever imagined. Yet with all of these experiences, my journey as a professional kite surfer has also been more work than most would expect. Like many kids, I figured if you were good enough to go pro all you had to do was kite and collect paychecks. I think I speak for most of the professionals out there; in the kiteboarding industry, to make money, you need to do a lot more than just kite. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve learned so much about the companies that sponsor me, from the business side of things to the latest marketing and media production skills. While I wouldn’t advise skipping out on a college education, after juggling both a professional kitesurfing career and university at the same time, I can honestly say I have learned more practical skills from working with my kiting sponsors than I did in four years of academics.
If there’s one lesson to draw from my Thule adventure, the more opportunities you create for yourself, the more you will get out of life. I can’t thank every one of my sponsors enough for supporting me as an athlete through my scholastic pursuits. I’ve learned more than I ever would have thought from this incredible sport. My hope is that larger brands will continue to see the magic in kitesurfing and support our youth in chasing their dreams.