BALTIMORE -- For the first time in Maryland National Guard history, a Maryland Soldier advanced to the national level of the Best Warrior Competition.

Spc. Hunter Olson progressed through the battalion, brigade, MDNG, and regional competitions to make it to the Army BWC and was a close runner-up for first place, something never accomplished by any Maryland National Guard Soldier before.

Hailing from the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, Olson competed against the best Soldiers and non-commissioned officers from 11 commands. His resiliency, dedication and mental fortitude drove him to first place

in the ruck march, winning him the "Point Man Award."

"There are plenty of capable Soldiers out there who can do this," says Olson. "But being able to represent the MDNG for the first time [on a national stage] was really awesome."

While every year the Army National Guard and Army Reserve components are represented in the Army Best Warrior Competition, this was a pivotal moment to highlight what the National Guard, specifically the MDNG, is capable of when competing against active-duty Army.

"Making it to second place with less than a 10 point differential not only sets Maryland apart, it sets the National Guard apart as a whole," explained Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa Wilson, Maryland National Guard senior enlisted leader. "This is not a full-time Soldier. This is a traditional Guardsman who trained just as hard as an active-duty Soldier and went out there and won over some active Soldiers. It lets everyone know that Soldiers of the National Guard are of the same caliber [as any Soldier of the United States Army]."

Over the six-day competition, 11 Soldiers and 11 NCOs were tested on their knowledge, skills and abilities by demonstrating critical thinking, navigating urban warfare situations, in formal board interviews, physical fitness challenges, written exams, and more.

Olson explained that unlike the previous levels he competed at, the Army BWC seemed more mission-oriented rather than just focused on a task. Competitors immersed themselves in a scenario staged at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, where the base served as the notional country of West Corona. Soldiers had to defend West Corona from the fictional neighboring country of East Corona.

The days started well before daylight, with simulated missions involving battlefield surveillance, engagement with enemy forces and on-camera interviews with journalists. Throughout the challenge, actors were strategically placed to distract competitors from the mission objective.

"It was really great training," said Olson. "In a real mission setting, you're going to be rushed, and it's important to react well but really quickly."

The element of surprise also tested competitors.

"From the very beginning, you didn't know what was going on or what to expect," Olson said. "This competition was different than any other competition. The unknown was nerve-racking. It wasn't the most physically demanding competition, but it had the most unknowns."

Olson had competed in previous Best Warrior competitions, but training for this event was entirely different.

"There's no way to train for the unknown, other than to expose yourself to as many situations as possible so you know how your mind will react," he said. "If you physically train hard, then the physical part will come more easily and you can focus on the mental part."

To mentally prepare, Olson studied Army history and current political topics.

However, midway through training, Olson was in the final semester of college and graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology.

"I was juggling studying for brigade boards with studying things like chemistry," Olson said. "To be successful in this competition, you need to be very well-rounded. It's more than just a physical challenge."

"We are so proud of him," said Wilson. "Not many command sergeant majors can say that they had a Solider go all the way through to the Army competition and actually place."

Olson plans to become a physician's assistant and attend Ranger School and Basic Leadership Course to join the Army's NCO Corps.

"[Olson] is truly a special Soldier in the MDNG, and I cannot wait to see the type of leader that he is going to become," Wilson said.