Montana Tough: UM Grad Student Excels at Army Ranger Competition

Maj. Michael Blanchard (left), a UM graduate student, and his teammate, Maj. Brian Slamkowski, smile at the finish line. Note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense uniform or information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement.

By Kyle Spurr, UM News Service

MISSOULA – Michael Blanchard, a business graduate student at the University of Montana and former Griz decathlete, runs at least 40 miles each week to stay in shape as a U.S. Army major. 

Blanchard recently added to his training regimen to prepare for the Best Ranger Competition, a grueling 60-hour event over four days against the most elite Army Rangers in the nation. He started building his endurance by taking long walks with a 65-pound rucksack. 

“I’m sure people in Missoula probably thought I was weird as I was walking around the streets with a big camo rucksack on my back,” Blanchard joked. 

Blanchard’s hard work paid off. He and fellow Army Maj. Brian Slamkowski, a graduate student at Stanford and Blanchard’s teammate in the Best Ranger Competition, finished fifth overall out of 51 teams.

The impressive showing at the event, held April 8-11 in Fort Benning, Georgia, meant Blanchard and Slamkowski are considered top 10 Army Rangers in the country. And Blanchard became the first active UM student to be in the competition since it began in 1982. 

“Earning a spot at this event is an accomplishment in itself, but competing and finishing in the top five is a remarkable feat,” said Pat Beckwith, director of UM’s Military and Veteran Services. “Most teams come from large military installations where they can train and practice many of the events. Mike and Brian are unique because they are both graduate students, and despite their limited access to training facilities and not being co-located to regularly train as teammates, they still managed to place fifth amongst the best ranger soldiers in the nation.”

Some may ask why put yourself through the difficult Best Ranger Challenge, especially for Blanchard, who at 34 was older than most of the other competitors still proving themselves in the Army. The average age at the competition was 28. 

“Both Maj. Slamkowski and I wanted to show just because we are majors and just because we are older than most of the guys there, it doesn’t give us the excuse to be idle,” Blanchard said. “It doesn’t give us the excuse to let our skills and military attributes wane.” 

Blanchard and Slamkowski were stationed together at Fort Benning in 2016, when they tried the Best Ranger Competition for the first time and finished third overall. That experience helped them mentally prepare. However, the physical challenges change each year. Blanchard was ready for the obstacle courses, long runs and shooting tests with machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles, but one event almost kept him from the finish line. 

The Prusik climb is a race up a 60-foot fixed rope, like an extreme version of climbing a rope in grade-school gym class. Blanchard and his teammate had never climbed a Prusik rope and worried how they would fare. After watching other competitors, they finally figured it out and moved on to the next challenge. 

“We were both very concerned we would be the only ones in the competition to not make it up the rope,” Blanchard said. 

After the competition, Blanchard returned to Missoula, where he is finishing the first year of his Master of Business Administration studies. He is on track to graduate with his MBA next spring. He is not a traditional MBA student as an active-duty member of the Army. But he said his studies go hand-in-hand with what he hopes to accomplish in his Army career.

“It’s a mix of technical business skills and attributes to broader organizational leadership that is applicable to the Army,” he said. “I’m enjoying my time so far.” 

Blanchard, who grew up in the small town of Selah, Washington, near Yakima, came to UM in 2006 as a pole vaulter on the Griz track and field team. He was introduced to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and decided to join. When he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology in 2010, he also was commissioned as a United States Army officer. 

A decade later, when he decided to pursue graduate school, Blanchard knew exactly where he wanted to go.

“There was really only one choice,” he said. “Come back to Missoula and go to the U.” 


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM Strategic Communications director, 406-243-5659,

Note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense uniform or information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement.