From the track to the field to the ice, former UCSB sprinter and current USA rookie bobsled pilot Nick Cunningham had always known that he would one day represent his country at the Olympic Games, but he never envisioned the arduous path he would take to get where he is today.
Following a record-breaking sprinting career at UCSB, Nick shifted his focus to football at Monterey Peninsula College until once again returning to the track for Boise State University until his graduation in 2008.
While bobsledding began as a family joke, it ultimately became a life-changing experience for Cunningham. Nick’s worldly travels have thrown him his fair share of obstacles, but he held onto his childhood dreams and can now proudly say that he is, in fact, a U.S. Olympian.
First of all, congratulations on completing your World Cup season and once again being named to the Olympic team for the World Cup Championships. Is being an Olympian something you’ve always dreamed of?
Oh yeah. I mean, since I was a little kid I always thought I was going to be a track star … go to the Olympics and the summer games. You know, things don’t always work out, but you got to make the best of a situation and I kind of switched my focus on another way to get there. One door closed and another one opened. I went for an open tryout, ended up getting a callback and 18 months later, walking into that opening ceremony. No matter if it’s summer games or winter games … having that USA on your back is an unbelievable feeling. There’s nothing else like it.
Wow man, inspirational. For many like myself who have always wondered, how does it feel to travel around the world bearing the letters U-S-A across your chest? Empowering?
It really is; I mean, there’s honestly no other sense of pride. Wearing a jacket that says U.S. Olympic team or has big ole’ USA letters across your back while knowing that you’ve worked your entire life to earn that jacket, to earn those letters … Anybody can go out and buy a team USA jacket, but to actually have one given to you by your country, being able to wear that with pride … I wouldn’t change it for anything.
You were a former track and football star in both high school and college. What ultimately led you to make the huge transition to bobsled?
I didn’t do a winter sport ever growing up … I mean, I grew up surfing in central California … I went snowboarding like once, but I never really saw the snow. I first came down for a track meet when I was at UCSB and we drove up … right there in Santa Ynez Mountains and we watched the crew team practice one day. On the way back … my mom kind of jokingly said, “Hey, looks like a bobsled run. You’re fast … Aren’t sprinters, like, the best bobsledders?” Just as a joke I was like, “Yeah, you know that’s what I’m going to do after college.”
Well, we actually drove back to Monterey and my dad sent me a whole bunch of information on bobsled, the federation and the athletes. … It was always kind of a joke, but I eventually transferred to Monterey Peninsula College, played football there and then eventually transferred to Boise State University, and once I graduated from there I was like, what am I going to do? When you graduate, everything stops because I’d had a routine the past five years of my life and now it’s done. I happened to go try out for the bobsled team, [did] something that not many have said they’ve tried out, and here we are.
How do the former skills from both of those sports translate over to the specific positions in bobsled?
I mean, it’s a different technique, but it kind of combines power and speed. … Getting the sled off the block and kind of powering out … it’s really got that football power but it’s also really like coming out of the blocks if you’re a sprinter. Those first few steps are all a drive phase, a sprint phase over the crest down until you jump on the sled. I figure the faster you are, the better you’re going to do. I had to gain a lot of weight for the sport … I was a 165-pound sprinter and now I’m 210. I’m still really small for bobsled … guys are usually 220 to 230.
Due to the fact that I’ve never had any experience in bobsled myself, whenever I hear the word … the movie “Cool Runnings” comes to mind. Have you actually faced the “Jamaican bobsled team”?
It’s “Cool Runnings” — that’s exactly it! I can’t tell you how many cliché “Cool Runnings” comments I’ve gotten. It’s been to the point where I have befriended people. There is a Jamaican team that is competing this year and I mean, they are the funniest group of guys ever. They love it and we love having ’em around because the publicity we get through them is out of control. That’s pretty much how America knows bobsled … by the Jamaicans.
Have you seen the movie?
Oh yeah, it’s one of those fun ones that … after you do the sport and you watch it, you’re kind of like, “Aww, it kind of ruined the movie!” You start meeting the people that the characters are based on … there’s a guy who was coaching in Park City, Utah, and he was the Jamaican coach. I just looked at him and was like, “If John Candy played me I’d be so mad! I’d be so angry!” He never got a gold medal stripped from him, he never ran off to Jamaica for drinking and all that … he wasn’t a bookie. It kind of killed the movie for me, but it’s fun to watch every once in awhile.
Throughout your amazing journey, what would you say sticks out the most to you as a favorite memory or experience that you’ll never forget?
Walking into the opening ceremonies. The opening ceremonies were definitely the highlight of my career thus far. I mean, nothing will even be close to it. I was right in the middle, so right when I was walking in, you could hear the announcer say, “THE United States of America!” I walked into this giant stadium with 70,000 people losing their minds.
I’ve seen in a number of places that you represent your country in a different way by serving as a specialist for the National Guard. What is it like representing your country on two different levels?
It actually is the best of both worlds — it’s a program called the W-CAPS … a world-class athlete program. It’s a program that kind of allows soldiers to compete and train … In the season I can focus on training and working out and … making it to the next Olympics. In the offseason, you know, it’s a 100 percent soldier, and that’s where we can make some money because we don’t get paid for being on Team USA; we have to self-fundraise and do whatever we can … A lot of people actually have to leave the force because they can’t afford it. It’s a nice little way to kind of get a small paycheck just to keep me in long enough to keep my head above water … you can’t beat it.
Is bobsled training and competition year-round job?
It is year-round. Of course, we don’t really do too much stuff in the summer, but we do have a push track that we get on the sled and work on timing and push technique. We’re in the weight room all summer long, on the track all summer long, working on getting bigger, faster. The guys that are out here right now are incredible … We got some great push athletes. I’m just working on sleds and trying to make mine the fastest in the world. [I] work with the coaching staff … making sure I’m on that next flight to Sochi in 2014.
How excited are you to compete this upcoming week?
Oh man. I mean, being a driver is a whole new ballgame. Just getting into that sled and knowing that … I’m in charge of representing USA. I’m no longer brakeman; I’m now a driver and … I don’t know, it hasn’t really hit me yet. I know these guys, I know the track, so I don’t think I’m nervous — I think I’m more anxious … I want to get on the track … I want to start competing.
After competing in this weekend’s two-man heat for the USA-3 team, Cunningham and his crew finished two-tenths of a second away from qualifying for medals. Cunningham is currently biting at the bit to represent the United States of America in this weekend’s four-man World Cup Championships on Feb. 25 and 26.