Project Echelon: Self-Discovery Through Physical Activity With Eric Hill



Without doubt, the greatest rewards always come from the most difficult journey. In this episode, Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst interviews Eric Hill, the Co-founder and President of Project Echelon about what their advocacy is all about. Helping people reflect on their whys and reevaluate their paths, Eric and his team help people, especially veterans, become more self-empowered and move forward. Along with many other organizations, Eric talks about who they are collaborating with and how they go about with their activities. He also shares his experience as an athlete, specifically as a cyclist.

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Project Echelon: Self-Discovery Through Physical Activity With Eric Hill


I have a great guest for us, Eric Hill. He's a Cofounder and President of Project Echelon, which is a great organization to help veterans. It's one of the best things that I have joined to be able to help with self-discovery through physical activity. It's such a great opportunity. He's also an Instructional Coach for Waukesha STEM Academy. He's a father, a husband, an athlete, and everything. Eric Hill, it’s great to have you on the show.


Thank you, Rob. You're inspirational yourself. It's a pleasure to have this conversation with you, support you in your journey and be inspired by what you do as well.


Thank you so much. I want to start out with the educator part of you because it's a huge thing that translates into what you do with Project Echelon. You talked about, “All kids have the right to an education that empowers them to be individuals, creative thinkers, and agents of change.” That's such a powerful voice. Tell me how you facilitate that.


It's probably my fault that I don't have an updated profile somewhere but I changed jobs. I work for a regional service agency through the state of Wisconsin in CESA 1. I work with 45 school districts not only in the school district of Waukesha. I have the opportunity to work across the country with schools in Arkansas, California, Kansas, and all over the country. It is amazing to see the vast dynamic of our education system to be in rural Wisconsin one day and to be in Chicago public schools a couple of days later. All kids are kids and they all have potential and assets. They all have dreams and aspirations. Our job as educators and as adults, even if you're not in the education space, is to empower them. Help them figure out what those passions are and what the best path for them to achieve those goals and those aspirations is, and give them the support network they need to make them become a reality.


My job is working with adults, our educational leaders, from teachers to principals to superintendents reframe their dispositions like, “Why do you do what you do?” For most of us, our why nowadays is probably different from our why from day one, the day we decided to become a teacher. Most of us got into this because we want to inspire young minds and we're passionate about kids and we're passionate about the leaders of our future. We forget that it's easy to forget that regardless of what your career path is like, “Why am I here now?” I’m helping people reflect on their why and then reevaluate the path that they're on. How do we take steps towards getting to our end goal of empowering kids to do what's best for their own lives?


That's such a key component if you think about when you're a child, the creativity and the endless possibilities that you have in your life as we grow to be adults, we start to lose that. If you can empower that in a child, it is powerful. Translating from what you do there in that educational component, you translated that to something for veterans because they need that sense of purpose. There is an ability to change and adapt back into society. Give an overview of Project Echelon.


The mission of Project Echelon is to educate, equip, and empower veterans through physical activity and self-discovery. It's as simple as going ahead and recognizing that veterans are people and they need our support and love. They need to be able to tap into our networks and they have goals and aspirations beyond being in the military as well. We need to help them with their transition post-military to achieve those goals, dreams and aspirations as well. It came to be organically through the collaboration of myself and Eric Beachwho's the other half of me. He’s a Cofounder of Project Echelon who reached out after struggling with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He made three attempts at suicide and struggled with cocaine and alcohol addiction.


He had done a lot of things to go ahead and try to overcome those himself. He went to Save A Warrior in Kentucky and got some support through a disabled veteran and was able to get a support dog. He was with the boot campaign. He did a lot of things to get things in order, but he still had to avoid something that he wasn't able to overcome. He reached out to me, our wives or mutual friends and he said, “When I was in the military, I had a goal, purpose, and structure. That was provided to me through my being a physical human being. When I came home, I lost that identity. I don't have that purpose and I don't have those goals any more. I don't know where to start.” At that time, I was aspiring to be an elite cyclist myself and I was in a space where I had a network of people around me that had supported me with those things.


I felt that it was my turn and my opportunity to give that support back to him. I got him some equipment and hooked him up with some of the sponsors that I had for myself. I tried to share some of my knowledge about training, nutrition, sleep and all these things that are behind preparing for an event. I got him ready for the goals that he had set for himself. Six months later, he did his first triathlon and he felt something that he hadn't felt in a long time and it started to fill that void. Soon enough, a couple of months later, he signed up for his first Ironman. That's a leap as you know. We went ahead and we kept on digging in. He fought through a lot of adversity and persevered. He realized that the physical side of him, that person that pursued goals and was mentally tough and physically tough is still there.


It opened up in another part of his mind that allowed him to reflect on himself and in his path in different ways that he wasn't able to do when he was struggling with his addiction. Together, that transformed his life and we decided we needed to start an organization to provide that same experience and those same resources to other veterans. We started Project Echelon Racing, which is an elite cycling team in North America. It’s the top-ranked amateur team in North America in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

We've been invited to Europe to go and do professional races in Europe as well as the entire professional circuit in North America. It's been amazing to see how exponentially fast this has grown but it's truly because of the mission that we have behind us. It's because we have a greater purpose than being elite athletes. We have the purpose of representing men and women who have served our country.


I wanted to interject because I love that we got to know Eric Beach’s story and it's amazing to hear it from you as well. The collaboration between you who was a pro athlete. A lot of people see pro athletes as the untouchables and they're in their own headspace all the time. You helped and reached out with the network and the resources to be able to help somebody who needed help at that time and be able to provide that environment. At the same time, the resources to be able to do that, that's amazing. That in itself is such a powerful message. Reach out to other people because whatever you have could help somebody else and whatever they have, I can tell from how you tell a story that transformation of the other Eric is powerful to you.


I can't tell you how many tough workouts or times in the middle of a race where it would be easier for me to stop than to keep going. When you know you’re representing something greater than yourself or you're inspiring somebody who currently can't or isn't doing something but wants to. That extra 5% or 10% that it gives you, you can't get it from anywhere else. That's the heart of our success and the passion that we have behind the work that we do.


That’s more than just a jersey and a logo. It is something bigger than yourself that you're going for. A lot of people will say, “I'm doing this for a cause. I'm doing this for my why.” For the readers, what is that little 5%? What is it talking in your ear as you're going and your muscles are cramping up? You feel that realistically, you want to pull over and stop at the next McDonald's and say, “I'm done with this. This is not worth it.” What is that little voice telling you in your ear?


It's a different voice every time. In 2019, we were privileged enough to support 104 veterans. We donated over $38,000 and eight racing machines that the team used to veterans through our grant process. Every time somebody is different. It's from the veterans’ wife who calls and says, “Thank you for bringing my husband back. He's been home for a while but I haven't had him in our home for a while.” Joshua Boguslofski is a great advocate for us. He's on our board. He's was medically retired, but he's re-enlisted as an instructor with the Airborne.


He won his first race ever in 2019 and didn’t know the amount of joy and excitement that brought to his life. I want more people to experience that. My sister is going to be deployed in Iraq. She graduated from West Point and she's an Apache pilot, but to know that when she comes home, I hope that they support her so that she doesn't deal with some of the things to the extent that these men and women have. I hope that we can do that for her. If not, I hope there's somebody else that steps up to the plate. It's a different voice every time, which speaks volumes.


That also lends itself and when you guys talk about the solution that you bring as Project Echelon. There's a great statement that you have in there that there's not one end-all be-all way to help veterans succeed from PTSD or from TBI, which is Traumatic Brain Injury. That's such a true statement. It's not just cycling, triathlon and running but it's trying it. One of the messages that you guys say is, “Come and try it.”


By no means we are medical professionals, either we know our limitations and we know what we're capable of. We know that we can't meet every need of every person but we're not here to compete with other organizations. We're here to collaborate and partner with them. We would hope that if a veteran came to us and we couldn't meet their specific needs, we would be able to direct them in a proper place and get them the support they needed and vice versa. If a veteran connected with another organization and was looking for different types of support, we would hope that we'd be a part of their network and that they direct them our way. We were all in the same fight. We're all trying to support the same people and it needs to be collaborative in nature. We can't be competing because the men and women that we're serving are too valuable to compete for.


That's such a great statement and that goes right to the point of empowerment. You talked about, “To truly self-empower these veterans to be able to move forward on a daily basis.” I have felt suffering from PTSD as well and the end-all be-all is, “The finish of the race is not the culmination. It is the journey that takes to get there as well as the journey during the race.” Do you have any stories? I hear stories all the time and I love to know stories of that empowerment of the journey to be able to function. You had talked about that you had a wife of a veteran telling you, “Thanks for bringing him home even though he had been home for a while.” What are some stories that you've heard about that journey that resonates to the point of, “This is empowering people to move forward?”


There’s something that comes to mind right away. As a part of our organization, we have a private Facebook group that we share a story, a goal or adversity through every week. It's a different topic of conversation. One that came through was about a veteran who is a recipient of one of the bikes that we donated who is going to be pulling other disabled veterans in Ironman Wisconsin for the bike portion of the event. His goal in life has always been to be a public servant in the military and fulfill that aspect of his life for him. That's a gap that he's had since retiring from the military. This is going to be his way of filling that void. That's something that immediately stands out as a story that was shared. He's not only giving to himself and filling his own void but giving back to somebody else to fulfill their own dream. Those stories are numerous. Veterans are such selfless people. There are too many stories to tell and it's hard to capture them all. They went into the service for a variety of reasons, but at the heart of it, they made a sacrifice for their family and for the freedom of their country. A heart of that is selflessness and that's inspiring.


You have a lot of companies that help you out with products and sponsorship. That's a huge thing for them to step up and back something that is powerful like Project Echelon. It’s helping not only a pro team realize a dream and go out there for a bigger purpose, but also veterans. I want to give you a chance to give a shout out to those companies that stepped up to the plate and helped out.



We have a number of organizations that are generous in their support to us. One of them is Trace-A-Matic. They're based out of Brookfield, Wisconsin. They do precision CNC machining and they've made an amazing commitment to hiring and training veterans and to have that training be paid as well. They do a lot of machining for military products like the armored vehicles, the rotors of aircraft, and a number of other things. They've been absolutely wonderful to us and they've been with us from the start. A wonderful part of that story is as an educator, I had the opportunity to teach the owner of that company's children as well. A connection and inspiration on many levels from Trace-A-Matic.


Pieper Power is another amazing organization. They're nationwide and they're based here in Wisconsin. They support a number of other things like MS 100 and events like that to support organizations that they believe in hiring, supporting, training and sustaining veterans. Companies like Grunau and BELtech are veteran-owned companies. Many veterans are selfless in taking their own successes and using it to give back to their brothers and sisters. The sponsors that are in this athletic space believe in the fact that we're an elite organization, an elite team that has a greater purpose themselves. The Argon 18 bikes are able to give us some bikes so we can donate those away at the end of the season. Most of the time, teams would go ahead and sell those for-profit and put that back into a team budget but we work with our sponsors like Argon 18 to be able to donate those away at the end of the year. Jakroo clothing and Reynolds wheels do the same thing for us. For them to realize, “This team has a different disposition than any other program at this level that they know of, to get behind us and recognize the value of that,” is quite amazing and inspiring.


One of the things that you're talking about is equipping the veterans to be able to use this physical activity for self-discovery. Providing that financial relief for these veterans to do a triathlon is an expensive adventure and to have that aspect where you don't need to worry about that aspect is huge. The other thing that people can do and I encourage you to do this. Eric, can you tell us how somebody can go and donate money to Project Echelon and have that money work to help veterans?


We try to make it as easy as possible. Go to our website, ProjectEchelon.org and click on the Donate page that's on the front there. You can donate to us straight through PayPal and in the note, go ahead and determine how you would like for that money to be utilized. We typically make our private, smaller donations through that platform. Otherwise, you can go to the Contact Us page on our website and note that you're a potential sponsor and then we'd love to connect with you over the phone. We tell our story, hear your story and figure out what options are best for you, your needs and meeting your goals of supporting our men and women who serve.


I'm honored to be a part of it. It's much fun to be able to have the opportunity to both have the voices of others be heard especially with having PTSD, it takes a while for you to want to speak about it. It takes a while for you to own that, “This is how life is now.” The power of being able to use sports as a great outlet. It's a safe haven, a place to reflect and grow. That's true especially dealing with these things. You are a pro cyclist. Take me through being a professional cyclist like the day, let’s say you're doing a stage race of 100-mile race. What does your day look like? I watched the Tour de France and I've been to the Tour of Utah. It's unbelievable to me to be able to go 100 miles day after day. What is the routine that you go through to be able to do that?


As you will know, an Ironman yourself, which is no slouch. You know the performances and the preparation. It's about being diligent and following, sticking and trusting a plan and process day after day leading up to that event. For me, that looks quite different being a business professional as well, being in education and having a family. I have another level of organization and responsibility that I have to work through. Some of our guys, this is their dedicated job or profession. This is what they do. For them, it's all about self-care, sleeping right, eating right, stretching, core strength, and riding as many as 6 hours a day and 30 to 35 hours a week.


That leads into that event and the event itself is about trusting that process and trusting the guys that you have around. It’s similar to military like trust your training, trust the people you have around that they'll have your back, you have a plan and stick to that plan. There are going to be times we have to deviate from it, too. Trust the leadership you have around you and the decisions that they're making. When you do that, things fall into place. It's trying not to let a big event like the Tour of Utah or a big stage race. Try not to let that overwhelm you and focus on the little things that you can control. Control the controllables. From that, success follows.


That's such a great statement to take the small steps to make a bigger thing because a lot of people take off that huge chunk. The same goes with Ironman as I look at the whole race of 140.6 miles and I’m like, “Are you serious I'm going to do that?” You have to take each mile as it comes and control the controllable. My dad always said that and it's true because the things that you can control are your attitude and your effort. It comes down to that preparation of not only your physical body but your mental state. From a pro athlete, that's a tall order especially from a family man. What do your kids think of your cycling? It's a huge thing to have your actions speak louder than your words as a parent.


I can’t tell you how proud I am when my boys see me working out or see my wife working out. She's a major inspiration for them as well and she does duathlon and runs marathons. They get it from both sides but dad's on the bike downstairs and they want to set up a bike trainer right alongside me. They come to a race and there's a kids event. They're the first kids in line to pin on a number or to see their smile when they cross the finish line. They know that they accomplished something. I hope that they're passionate about it like I am someday but if they're not, at the least I want them to walk away with some of the mindsets of growth, persevering, setting goals and doing things that are for you that you're passionate about and enjoy. I hope they walk away with that to help them get through tough times in their future.


That’s what we wish for our kids in the future and we hope that they can take away from what we do.


They're definitely an inspiration for me and they keep me going. They're one of those voices.


Eric, it has been an amazing adventure chatting with you. Thank you for all the things you do as well as your words. That's a powerful thing to know that there are some people out there that are wanting to create this great space for individuals who are searching for themselves and that ability to continue to move forward. Project Echelon is about educate, equip, and empower veterans to be able to use physical activity and through self-discovery find themselves and find their why. I always end my show with some questions for you. There's no right or wrong answer so you don't need to be nervous. I'll give you the first one. What is one thing you haven't done but it's outside your comfort zone?


I am somebody that is open to almost all experiences and then I determine whether or not I like them afterward. I don't like to limit myself in what I am capable of or willing to experience. That's neither here nor there type of question. I try to be as open as possible.


Second question, what is your favorite quote and why?


I'll have to go with the one that's at the bottom of my email, “I never said it was going to be easy. I only said it would be worth it.” That speaks to many different aspects of our lives. “The greatest rewards often come from the most difficult journeys,” and that quote summarizes that.


That's one of my favorite quotes. I always say that and I tell myself that before the Ironmans and every single day because it is worth being here. That's the key to remember. Last question here, if you could have coffee with three people that could be deceased or alive at a firehouse table, so nothing is off the table when you're talking at a firehouse table, who would it be and why? That's a deep question. I like catching you off guard because then you get the true answer. You can't think about it.


I'm trying to pick somebody from politics, athletics, and from another segment.


You don’t want that dynamic conversation.


I do. I'm struggling to do it.


Especially when they're hopped up on coffee at the firehouse table because it's constantly coming towards you. I'm going to do these rapid round questions. This is easy. All you have to do is say one of the two options. Paper or plastic?



Paper.


Soup or salad?


Soup.


McDonald's or Taco Bell?


I haven't eaten McDonald's for years and Taco Bell since college. I’ll go with McDonald's. They have an Impossible Burger.


How about camping or a hotel?


Camping.


Fly or drive?


It depends where I'm going if I’ve got to go through North Dakota.


Hopefully, nobody in North Dakota took offense on that. Sleep in late or wake up early?


Wake up early.


Run or walk?


Run.


Partly sunny or partly cloudy?


Partly sunny.


Fire or water?


Fire.


Use a Porta-Potty or run or drive to the next physical bathroom?


I'll take a tree over having to go any further.


How about Coke or Pepsi? I'm guessing you haven't had either.


I haven't drunk soda.


Go big or go home.


Go big.


Eric, it's been a pleasure chatting with you. If you want to find out more about Project Echelon, go to ProjectEchelon.org. Eric, thanks for your words, for what you're doing for everybody else, and for coming on the show.


Thank you for your time and let's keep inspiring one another. It's wonderful to be here.


It’s a great thing. Thanks for reading.


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