Club Sailing
Courtesy: Club Sailing

St. Thomas Club Sports Experiencing Boom in Division I Era

Rachel Bartel ’24 was at a crossroads in 2020. The first-year student loved her new community at the University of St. Thomas, but she yearned for a piece of home. A longtime sailing enthusiast, she needed to get back on the water.

“At first it was something I thought I didn’t need in college, but of course, as soon as I got to St. Thomas, I knew I had to have the best of both worlds,” Bartel said.

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes you’re never very far from water and so Bartel took matters into her own hands. She reestablished the university’s club sports sailing team and brought the college sailing community to St. Thomas.

Make a splash and watch the Club Sailing Team as they practice on Lake Minnetonka.

Bartel’s journey into the world of club sports is rapidly becoming a common thread at St. Thomas. The university’s club sports program has experienced a mega boom of interest and participation in the last five years.

Quadrupling interest

In 2018 the program featured just six teams and around 100 students. This fall, the program boasts 19 teams and some 500 participants.

Amid the expansion, Bartel’s sailing team is thriving. About two dozen student sailors now practice out of the Wayzata Sailing Club on Lake Minnetonka. On weekends they travel to regattas across the Midwest, placing alongside the top national teams on the water.

“When I came to St. Thomas, I didn’t know that I’d be starting a whole club. I didn’t know that I would literally make a club to find my best friends,” Bartel said. “It’s so surreal knowing I created something that allows others to also find a place and space that gives them a sense of belonging at St. Thomas.”

Behind the record growth

Nordic Ski Club recruits members at the Engagement Fair
The newly established St. Thomas Nordic Ski Club recruits members at the Student Engagement Fair on Sept. 1, 2023. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

Club sailing is just one of the success stories. Recent additions include esports and men’s soccer. And three new clubs are joining the ranks just this fall: women’s softball, women’s hockey, and co-ed Nordic skiing.

So, what’s behind the mega boom? According to club sports director Kevin Manson, the conditions simply blossomed after the university made the switch to a Division I athletics program.

“This Division I era has really opened the door for so many of our club sports to truly come into their own,” Manson said. “The move helped separate our programs and create the space for growth.”

Club sports compete against other colleges and universities at the club (non-NCAA) level. But their schedule is generally far less stringent than that of a Division I athletics program. This creates a sweet spot for many participants.

Student-athletes who are considering St. Thomas, but who may not want to commit to a D-I sports program, often are excited at the prospect of joining a club sports team instead.

“Club sports are an important asset for the university, especially when you look at the benefits for students,” Manson said. “They offer the opportunity to find friends for life and many can pursue a sport that they still have a passion for after high school.”

Creating a team from scratch

Helping drive the record expansion at St. Thomas: Club sports are student-led and student-organized. All it takes is one student to make the request to start a team. After that, students organize their own competitions and do their own recruiting and marketing.

Meet the co-founders of the Women's Club Hockey Team as they drop the puck on their inaugural season. The team recently won their first two games against Iowa State.

Jayda Johnson ’26 knows firsthand just how much work it takes to start a team from scratch. She’s the co-founder of this year’s brand-new women’s club hockey team. Johnson has been busy getting ready for the inaugural season by scheduling games and coordinating practice ice time at Charles M. Schulz-Highland Arena.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been a lot of work behind the scenes,” Johnson said. “But it’s exciting to see it actually coming together, to watch this group of girls finally hit the ice.”

Johnson picked up hockey in kindergarten. Coming to St. Thomas, she didn’t want to let that passion fade.

“I’ve played hockey my entire life, and I really missed it, but I didn’t want to be on the D-I team at St. Thomas – that would have been too much of a time commitment,” Johnson said. “Despite all the work, this team, and the chance to get skating again, was the right fit.”

Looking into the future

Club sports are hardly new to the University of St. Thomas. The men’s rugby team is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Rowing has been around since 1965 and lacrosse has been organized since 1987.

St. Thomas Club Rugby vs St. John’s University
The St. Thomas Club Rugby Team takes on Saint John’s University on the south athletics fields. The St. Thomas squad is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

But right now, it’s hard to ignore the momentum surrounding these new additions. And the expansion is hardly over. In fact, the race to become the university’s 20th club sport is already on. Discussions are underway with director Manson to add pickleball and women’s rugby.

“We still have plenty of room for growth,” Manson said. “And it’s incredible to see these students putting in the work, to make their passion, their sport, a reality at St. Thomas.”

Back on Lake Minnetonka, Rachel Bartel is savoring her final year as president of the club sailing team. For this team founder, it’s crystal clear what club sports can do for Tommies.

“It’s honestly so surreal, that with a simple idea, our team grew from one, which was me, to about 20 people,” Bartel said. “Pursuing my passion with these people at St. Thomas has been amazing, and to share that with them, my new friends, means everything.”