He joined Guard for the benefits, now he's an Olympic hopeful

He joined Guard for the benefits, now he's an Olympic hopeful
New Hampshire National Guard Spc. Thomas Echelberger shoots at the Biathlon Spring Fling on March 3, 2021, at Fort Kent, Maine. Echelberger placed sixth out of 35 competitors. Photo credit U.S. Army

As a blistering spring heatwave rolls through the region, 90-degree heat and humidity are expected throughout the week. So what better time to prepare for the upcoming ski season. Well, at least for one New Hampshire Army National Guardsman.

Spc. Thomas Echelberger of the 195th Regional Training Institute is a biathlete for the NHNG and Olympic hopeful. He’s in Jericho, Vermont, for a two-week biathlon training course. The invitation-only program trains top Nordic athletes for a chance to represent the United States in the Olympics and other international competitions. His All-Guard training commitment is scheduled for two weeks a month until biathlon season starts in the fall.

“What’s so impressive is the fact he was selected for the All-Guard Development Team after only one season competing in the sport of biathlon,” said Maj. Robert Burnham, officer in charge of the NHNG team. “This is an incredible opportunity for Tom and the NH National Guard.”

The biathlon is a sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. Athletes race 10-20 kilometers through a series of trails and target ranges, ever mindful of breathing and heart rate for more steady and accurate shooting. While still somewhat obscure in the United States, the sport is wildly popular in Europe.

Though a biathlon newbie, the 26-year-old Echelberger has been an avid skier since he was a kid. He once held a top-10 NH rating on Hopkinton High School’s cross-country squad and competed on the University of Vermont’s club team.

Echelberger’s former high school coach, Rob Nadeau, credits his success to a disciplined mental approach.

“Nordic skiing is something that you have to be able to do the basic things really well over and over again,” Nadeau said. “Tommy fundamentally understands that the sport itself comes down to being able to perfect certain things and being able to focus on that.”

The slender Soldier is still learning the basics, like skiing with a long gun slung across his back. But his basic military proficiency with an M4 carbine carries over nicely to the sport’s .22 rifle and shooting silver dollar-sized targets 50 meters away.

“I think the coolest thing about biathlon is that it’s a competitive endurance sport," Echelberger said. "But you have to maintain your heart rate and shift your focus completely from moving yourself forward to getting rounds downrange accurately.”

He enlisted in the Guard a year and a half ago to help with student loans, for the health care benefits and to achieve a greater sense of purpose through service. Biathlon is just a bonus.

“I didn’t join the Guard to be a skier,” said Echelberger, who plans to attend Army artillery fire control training. “But it’s just the coolest opportunity I could have ever envisioned.”