Being an Olympic bobsledder from Monterey sounds out of the box. And that’s why Nick Cunningham tried out for the U.S.A. men’s bobsled team.
He had just graduated from Boise State where he ran track. But he knew track wouldn’t take him to the Olympics, which had been a lifelong dream.
“I figured it would be a graduation gift for myself to kind of do something outside the box, outside my comfort zone. Just try something none of my friends could ever say that they tried out for and so I went and tried out. And 18 months later, I went to my first Olympics,” said Cunningham.
That first Olympics was 2010, where he competed in the two and four-man bobsled events. After that, Cunningham did another thing completely out of the box.
“Less than two months later, I’m putting my little thumbprint on the thing, and I’m joining the military,” he said.
Cunningham became a member of the New York National Guard. He’s now a Sergeant. He did it to become a part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. It’s an elite group of soldiers who have these orders.
“They told me: 'go win medals for this country', and that’s my job at this moment,” said Cunningham.
The Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) is for soldier athletes who already have the proven ability to compete at this high level in an Olympic or Paralympic sport.
They do basic training and advanced individual training like every other soldier. After that, winter athletes go to Lake Placid New York and the summer athletes to Fort Carson, Colorado. That’s where I reached Col. Sean Ryan by phone.
He's director of communications for WCAP and a WCAP coach.
“I think the biggest thing about the program is it affords you the time. But with that time comes the responsibility to maintain your proficiency in that sport, maintain the time standards, and be eligible to make an Olympic or international team. If you don’t do that, you get released from the program,” said Ryan.
Soldier athletes began representing the Army at the Olympics in sports like boxing after World War II. The WCAP program formalized in 1997.
Over the years soldier athletes have competed in about a dozen different sports like wrestling, track and field and shooting. Since 1948, they've won 118 medals in the Olympic and Paralympic games.
This Winter Olympics seven will compete with hopes of bringing home more.
“That’s what we are looking for. When they raise the flag and play the national anthem, we want it to be the United States anthem, and we want our soldier with their hand over their heart and our flag being raised. That’s the mark of success,” said Ryan.
For the Army, it comes down to good public relations.
“Because we want to show that we’re more than just warfighters. These soldier athletes are incredible, and they can do a lot of things. So I think it just goes to show you how well rounded the U.S. Army is,” said Ryan.
And for Monterey bobsledder Nick Cunningham, the program makes being an Olympian possible.
“Without the World Class Athlete Program, I would not be bobsledding still. I would’ve been out of the sport easily four years ago, just cause of the financial commitment it takes. So to be able to have them as kind of a backing, and their support for me and everything that the Army brings. It has been phenomenal,” said Cunningham.
This will be Cunningham’s third Olympics. He’s going as a driver in the two and four-man bobsled events, which begin February 15. See a complete schedule here.
After that, he’s not sure what’s next: another Olympics, a career in the military or something else out of the box.