Oddly enough, Nick Cunningham says, it is in the relative calm before he climbs into the driver’s seat of a bobsled that “the mind is going a million miles an hour.”
Before each run, he walks the icy track and studies each foot of the path he’ll soon be hurtling along at speeds to 90 mph. How is the slope on this turn? Is the ice frosty or glassy? Will it run fast or slow? Is the sled’s toolbox fully stocked? In his sport, split seconds are precious.
“But when I’m on the starting block and jump into the sled and start driving down, it’s a very calm sense that kind of comes over you,” said Cunningham, who grew up in Monterey. “Everything just stops. And it’s you and the track.”
The next track Cunningham drives will be in Sochi, Russia, at the Olympic Games, where the graduate of Monterey Peninsula College and Boise State was chosen to pilot sleds for Team USA in the four-man and two-man competitions. It’s the second Olympics for Cunningham, who competed as a brakeman at the Vancouver Games in 2010.
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Shortly after those games, Cunningham switched to the front of the sled, where as driver he also doubles as manager of his race team. In Sochi, he’ll pilot one of two Team USA sleds in the four-man event and one of three entries in the two-man. He enters the Games ranked sixth in international two-man competition and 14th in the four-man.
Speaking by phone last week from Munich, the 28-year-old said he’s going into Sochi with “no doubt in my mind that I prepared the best I can for this,” and the belief he can contend for a medal. He trains mostly out of Lake Placid, where he is also a sergeant in the New York National Guard and member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
“I’ve done my homework, I’ve studied the tracks, done my workouts, managed to stay healthy,” Cunningham said. “It’s four years of sacrifices and hard work and everything, literally, for these next three weeks. I’m excited.”
If the bobsled seems an odd place for a Central California native to end up, Cunningham understands. He was a track athlete in college, first at UC Santa Barbara and then at Boise State. It was at the former that the idea came about – by way of a joke.
As Cunningham tells it, his parents were visiting him in Santa Barbara and all three were driving back to the campus down a curvy mountain road.
“They said the road was like a bobsled track,” he said, “and that I was fast so I should try out.”
At the time, Cunningham said, the extent of his familiarity with bobsledding came from the movie “Cool Runnings.” And little came of the off-hand suggestion until several years later, in 2008, when he graduated from Boise State and was “at that crossroads of what to do.” He decided to attend a Team USA open tryout in Lake Placid. Less than two years later, he was walking into the Opening Ceremony at the Vancouver Games.
The training regimen, as Cunningham describes it, is intense – five to six hours a day at the track, two more in the weight room, strategy meetings and travel – and he mentions the sacrifices this level of competition requires. Socializing suffers, especially when it comes to family and friends’ events back in California. His service obligations compound this. When his brother got married, for example, he flew in for a day and was gone the next.
A small fraction of this time is actually spent in the bobsled. But that’s when the adrenaline hits: “When you’re in that sled, it is violent, it is loud, it is cold, and you’re getting thrown from side to side,” Cunningham said. “Fighter pilots have (experienced this) and said, ‘You guys are crazy.’ That’s the best thing is when somebody gets out of the sled for the first time and they’re like, ‘Uh, how do you do that?’ ”
Those are the type of moments that make the grind worthwhile. Another is Cunningham’s most vivid memory of his first Olympics – though “memory” is a relative term. It’s of walking into the Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremony with the rest of the U.S. delegation, waving a miniature American flag.
“I have video from it and it still doesn’t seem real,” Cunningham said. “I feel like I’m watching somebody else’s YouTube video.”
What still resonates with him, though, is how: “At that point, we are all one team, we’re all Team USA. That pride is incredible.
“That’s what I’ve been telling the two new guys on (this year’s) four-man team,” he said. “They’re starting to realize, this is it. This is what we have. So embrace it, but don’t leave wishing you could go back and change something.
“Go 100 percent and leave with a medal. If I could pass anything on, it would be that.”