MENOMONIE — There’s going to be a time in the near future when Sam Elsner is a strength and conditioning coach.
His training client is none other than himself.
The UW-Stout senior thrower — fresh off a national championship in the shot put and a runner-up finish in the weight throw and being named athlete of the meet at the NCAA Division III indoor track and field championships March 9-10 in Birmingham, Ala. — is a student of the sport.
Elsner, who hails from Portage High School, won’t blow anybody away with his physical size. In fact, seeing him up close might surprise some that he’s an elite thrower.
But he puts so much time into his technique, footwork and explosiveness that more than complement his stature.
“Sam is a lot different of an athlete in the aspect that he’s so aware of his own body,” Blue Devils throws coach Kody Zahrte said. “I’m honestly pretty blessed to have him as an athlete, because it makes my job a lot easier. I can say ‘Hey we need another inch of elevation here with his arm or leg.’ And he’s so aware that he can do it and he is such a perfectionist with his technique.”
That mentality led Elsner to gold in the shot put, which isn’t his marquee event.
Elsner considers discus and the weight throw as his best events with shot put a distant third. Until this winter.
On March 10, Elsner launched the ball 57 feet, 11.75 inches to win the national championship. He was the top seed, but he still wasn’t expecting to win.
“I think with my technical efficiency and understanding of the discus technique, it just transferred over this year,” Elsner said. “Honestly, I don’t know what happened. It still baffles me.”
He also took second in the weight throw with a school-record heave of 65 feet, missing out on a national championship by a half-inch.
Elsner was the highest individual scorer at the meet and earned the top performer honor.
His journey to get this point came with winding roads and checkpoints.
After finishing 14th as a senior at the WIAA Division 1 track and field state meet in 2013 — a result that disappointed him but one that also served as motivation — Elsner came to UW-Stout but was hoping there would be a Division I future still for him.
Elsner threw well in his freshman campaign at UW-Stout, finishing as an All-American in the discus during the outdoor season. He came into contact with Lynden Reder, a throws coach at the University of Minnesota.
Before long, Elsner was a Gopher. He threw at Minnesota for two years.
But Reder left the program, and Elsner wanted familiarity. So he called up Blue Devils head coach Kyle Steiner.
Blue Devils blue never looked so good on someone, the coaching staff decided.
“I knew when I wanted to transfer somewhere else, and I had a home here,” Elsner said. “Kyle and I had a connection, and my throws coaches have always had a good bond with me here. I felt like I belonged here. I knew I could succeed at a Division III level even though I was used to a DI system.”
Elsner started his first year back with UW-Stout with a bang. And to no surprise, Elsner used his time at Minnesota as a learning experience for how to mentally approach the circle.
“You’re with the big dogs in Division I,” he said. “These guys can be Olympic champions. I got to compete against (Rio Olympic champion) Ryan Crouser. It was honor to compete against him and with him. Being around those guys, you kind of take that mentality into your own aspect and adapt it. You’re molded by it, and that’s kind of been my strength coming here to Division III. I have the mindset that I can do this.”
Elsner brought a lot of potential points at big-time meets back to Menomonie with him. But he also brought leadership and a work ethic that’s rubbing off on his younger teammates.
The Blue Devils finished seventh as a team at the national meet. With three throwing events at outdoor nationals — Elsner is ranked first in all of them at the moment — a podium finish isn’t out of the realm of possibility for UW-Stout.
“He’s shown these kids that just because you’re Division III, you can still compete at a very high level,” Zahrte said.
Elsner’s season thus far has been an A-plus effort.