STEM, N.C. -- Hand over hand, a Soldier pulls herself along a rope while hanging upside down, ankles locked around the rope, suspended 10 feet above a pit of shredded rubber pieces.

Just before reaching the platform at the end of the rope, the Soldier lets go of the rope and falls.
"Nothing's broken, it's just your pride that's hurt," said Staff Sgt. Donald Hill, the Soldier's sponsor, as he bent down to check on his competitor.

Then Spc. Lynn Cox, representing the 113th Sustainment Brigade, gets up, dusts herself off, and hurries to the next part of the obstacle course during the North Carolina Best Warrior Competition.
The North Carolina National Guard's annual competition, held March 4-7, 2019 at the Camp Butner Training Center in Stem, North Carolina, is all about finding the best enlisted Soldier and noncommissioned officer to represent the state in the regional competition in May, but behind every competitor is a sponsor, pushing them to be their best.

The 2019 competition saw 11 competitors in two categories; six noncommissioned officers and five enlisted soldiers, each of them bringing a sponsor from their unit to help them along the way.

"We've been working towards this about three months ago," said Hill, who like his competitor, is also from the 626th Supply Maintenance Company, 113th Sustainment Brigade.

Hill said that he's been working with Cox through the unit levels of the competition, helping her, getting to know her and training with her.

"It's kind of like a brother and sister thing," said Hill. "You're in the same unit together and you see each other every month. I think it helped out a lot knowing that I was here with her, supporting her and cheering her on."

Sponsors not only encourage their competitors on their quest to be named North Carolina's Best Warrior, but they also handle most of the logistics that go along with competing at the state level.
"Once they get here the best thing you can do is go behind them, make sure they've got all their gear, make sure their gear is ready and check their uniform so they're ready for anything that gets thrown at them," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Covington, the sponsor for Sgt. Gary Payne, both with the 694th Supply Maintenance Company, 113th Sustainment Brigade.

The Best Warrior Competition is only four days long but includes a physical fitness test, obstacle course, appearance board, weapons qualification, a written essay, a 12-mile ruck march, a land navigation course, three mystery events and other events that test both the mental and physical strength of the Soldiers involved. It makes for long days and a lot of moving pieces.

"Without the sponsors, a lot of things wouldn't get done," Payne said. "The Soldier can't be in two places at one time. The sponsor can take care of logistics stuff while you're practicing fundamentals for the competition, preparing for the appearance board or just resting."

Before the start of the 12-mile ruck march, sponsors tighten straps on the 35 lb rucksacks their competitors are wearing and hand them bananas and bottled water.

Some of the competitors ride in a 15-passenger van, hoping to catch a glimpse of their Soldiers along the route.

"Keep it up Douglas," yelled Staff Sgt. Jeff Wyatt as his competitor, Spc. Alizi Douglas passed by the open door of the van.

"I put myself through a lot of this stuff again," said Wyatt, who competed in a similar competition in 2007 and serves with Douglas in the 690th Brigade Support Battalion, 130th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. "I put myself through a ruck march at the house. I put on a 50 lb ruck and I took off for 6 miles to make sure I was going to know what he needed to do."

Often, sponsors are someone who has had experience in the competition, and according to Wyatt, that knowledge and experience are an important part of being a sponsor.

"I wrote an entire plan for work out routines, training, studying, places to get information," he said. "You have to figure out what their weak points are and help develop those areas."

The sponsors stay with their Soldiers through every level of the competition, and should they win, travel with them to the Region III Best Warrior Competition scheduled for May.

Sgt. Maj. Shane Potts, the noncommissioned officer in charge for the North Carolina Best Warrior Competition, said the sponsors are even more important as Soldiers move to the higher levels of the competition.

"With a dedicated sponsor, that sponsor is able to take care of that competitor, make sure they understand the timeline and help them think of the things that will make them more successful," Potts said. "They get to know each other, then the sponsors understand exactly what that competitor needs to help them out."

As competitors cross finish lines and complete events, sponsors cheer, bring dry clothes and ask their Soldiers how the event went, celebrating the successes and providing encouragement along the way.

The winners of the competition will not only be the Soldiers who are named Best Warrior, but also the sponsors, who were behind the competitors every step of the way.