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By Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes,
National Guard Bureau
Four years ago, when Tom Echelberger, a former high school and college cross-country skier, was working in a New Hampshire ski shop, he never dreamed he would have a full-time job skiing, let alone be headed to Sweden to represent the U.S. military in international competition.
It wasn’t until fate brought New Hampshire National Guard Maj. Rob Burnham into his shop in 2019 that the unlikely journey began. Burnham, at the time, aspired to revive the New Hampshire National Guard’s biathlon program, which had been inactive for over 16 years.
Biathlon is an Olympic-level sport that combines cross-country skate skiing and rifle marksmanship. Within the National Guard, around 30 states maintain biathlon programs.
In 2023, the revitalized New Hampshire team took third place at the Chief of the National Guard Bureau’s Biathlon Championships in Jericho, Vermont. They placed just behind teams from Vermont and Minnesota, whose programs have nearly a half-century of experience.
The New Hampshire team’s success is aligned with the addition of Spc. Tom Echelberger, who enlisted in the NHNG in 2020. After a few years of work and determination, he is one of just 11 servicemembers — all from the National Guard — headed to represent the United States in the World Military Ski Championships in Boden, Sweden, at the end of this month.
“I thought to myself, skiing is in New Hampshire’s DNA, and it should be part of the New Hampshire National Guard,” said Burnham, the NHNG biathlon program director. “There’s really a number of areas the National Guard benefits from in maintaining the biathlon training program. It’s about the whole Guardsman concept. I feel that our athletes are the best we have to offer in the Guard. They are physically fit, mentally tough and dedicated to their craft and each other.”
Burham discovered his interest in biathlon competition while running at the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Jericho in the summer of 2019. From there, he took on the challenge of resurrecting New Hampshire’s program, which had been inactive since 2004 when the demands of deployments for the Global War on Terror came to a head.
In late 2019, he was outfitting the team with equipment and frequenting Echelberger’s shop.
“One day, the young man helping us in the shop stopped to thank me, and I had no idea why,” said Burnham. Echelberger said he had been exploring his future and the interactions surrounding the development of the biathlon team led him to the New Hampshire National Guard.
Echelberger joined the National Guard’s elite biathlon development team after his first biathlon season in 2021. That enabled him to train year-round, leading to his selection to represent the National Guard in national and international competitions.
But being a Guard member has always been about more than biathlon for Echelberger. He proudly views himself as a Soldier-athlete. The day after he returns from competition in Sweden, he is headed to the Middle East for a deployment with the NHNG’s 3rd Battalion of 197th Field Artillery Regiment. He will serve in his primary Military Occupational Specialty as a fire control specialist and looks forward to improving his military skills on a real-world mission.
While success has come quickly, the reactivation of the New Hampshire biathlon program was not without growing pains. After initial training and competitions began in 2019, COVID-19 restrictions significantly affected the program. But the team identified ways to stay ready for regional U.S. biathlon competitions.
After not scoring a single ranking point in 2022 at the Guard Championships in Little Falls, Minnesota, the team orchestrated the unlikely top-three finish in 2023 in Jericho, where Burnham’s dream began.
“I was most excited to experience this accomplishment truly as a team,” Burnham said. “Everyone supported and contributed to the same goal, and we exceeded expectations together.”
Echelberger said there is a unique kinship among the Guard biathlon community. He also noted that the opportunity to build camaraderie with service members from outside his state has been valuable. He especially looks forward to competing with international military members in Sweden.
“I never thought I’d be where I am today, especially not three years ago when I joined the Guard,” said Echelberger. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity out there to compete against some of the best athletes in the world. It’s also a celebration of skiing and the service and commitment that all of us from our respective countries have made to those nations.”