When U.S. Navy SEAL Brian Bill, NU 2001, was killed in 2011 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, the entire student body and faculty was moved by his heroism and sacrifice for his country.
The memory of Brian Bill’s brave actions are still fresh in the minds of the Norwich community. Faculty, community members, students, and many others alike have found an appropriate manner in which to honor the SEAL’s death: a unique military-style obstacle course race held despite the harsh Vermont winter usually keeping students inside with little to do.
On Sunday, Feb. 17 on a bitterly cold windy day, nearly 300 hundred motivated athletes competed in the first Brian Bill Memorial Challenge sponsored by the Naval ROTC department. The race featured a series of obstacles around Norwich’s campus, raising both money for the Brian R. Bill memorial fund and honoring the life of an American hero.
Capt. David Castro, a U.S. Marine Corps officer, instructor for Naval ROTC, and the assistant event director, said, “after Brian was killed on Aug. 6, 2011, there was talk amongst the student body and faculty of doing something to honor his death.”
Castro said the idea was kicked around by students and faculty of NROTC who decided that after the success of the Levy Challenge (a similar military race held annually on campus), that they would attempt to do something even better and take full advantage of the winter season with all of its challenges.
“There is typically not much going on during these cold winter months,” Castro said, “so we figured it would be a great opportunity to keep people active as well as serve a greater purpose. The concept was only brought about early this past October and then a light bulb came on in my head and I realized that we could use the all of the great resources of the university and it’s been a blur ever since.”
“The race was brutal and exhausting,” said Meghan Weppner, 21, a criminal justice major from Buffalo N.Y., who took first place in the two-person female team group. “It was a heavy combination of cardio, running, tough obstacles, military physical training, and of course bitterly cold weather.”
Weppner competed with her race partner, Margo Smutnick, 20, a criminal justice major. “As a Norwich alum, Brian represents something we all want to do with our lives: be heroes and be remembered,” Smutnick said.
For students like Smutnick who are going to commission into the military, it helps to have role models such as Brian Bill to pave the way forward. “The race is more than just a physical challenge. It speaks greatly to who we are as a school. I don’t hear of any other campuses honoring their fallen alumni in this manner,” Smutnick said.
“The race started at 9 a.m. with waves of 10 to 15 athletes leaving every 15 minutes,” said Seth Hayes, 21, a construction management major and race participant from Connecticut. “With 200 people racing, the event went remarkably smoothly and was an overall great production,” he said.
Hayes, who began obstacle racing this past summer, has been more than happy to see Norwich take on its very own race.
“I’ve been doing the Spartan Races and Tough Mudder events and The Brian Bill Challenge was an awesome combination of the obstacle racing with military style workouts.”
Hayes said his training for, and participation in, the Brian Bill Challenge has been a great way to stay in shape and break the monotony of the winter months. Hayes is also using it as an opportunity to train for future races this summer.
“These types of races are often far away and can cost a lot of money, but the Brian Bill Challenge was affordable and having it on campus and to support a fallen alumnus was what sold me,” Hayes said.
“I was very impressed by how well Spartasynergy and NROTC worked together,” said Jake Bergeron, 20, a criminal justice major from Norton, Mass. “Even with the low temperatures, the whole event went off without a hitch.”
Castro said he tried to make the race as professional as possible. With the help of Spartasyngery.com, a professional racing company that Norwich solicited, they took care of all the fundamentals of putting the event together.
“The owner of Spartasyngergy, Jean LaCroix, is the official race director for the Brian Bill Challenge,” Castro said, “He has done a lot of things in the cycling world, but the whole setup process is the same. With his background in cycling and my military experience, we were able to put on a great event.”
Michael O’Hara, 22, a political science major from Pittsburg, Pa., was the student coordinator for the event. He is also the president of Golden Anchor society (an NRTOC club) and was Castro’s right-hand man during the whole process.
“The Golden Anchor Society has been in charge of organizing the event and working between the sponsors, Spartasyngery, and athletes visiting from other schools and locations,” O’Hara said.
“I coordinated with anyone who visited from out of town and made sure they had lodging,” O’Hara said. “We had a lot of athletes coming from other NROTC programs and also students from Mass Maritime and the Coast Guard Academy.”
To help cover the costs of the event, Castro and The Golden Anchor Society solicited the sponsorship of The Knotty Shamrock, a local pub, which as the title sponsor, donated a lot of money to the Brian Bill Challenge.
Plumley Armory, where the event began, was a flurry of activity with different vendors advertising, food, a masseuse, and of course all of the support crew members and racers. “I have done the course three or four times and it is no joke,” Castro said. The race course was made to challenge all athletes.
“Tradition is very important to students at Norwich, and I am very glad to see everyone rallying together for such a great cause,” Weppner said. “The Brian Bill Challenge speaks very highly of this school’s character.”
For a full slate of results, photos and videos of the event, go to http://www.spartasynergy.com/page18.html