They Lead

Always On The Track: Two Athletes' Lifelong Need For Speed

Emilee White

The track has always been home to Nick Cunningham. 

In high school, Cunningham was a star athlete on the track and field, and football teams, gaining notable recognition that landed him a track and field scholarship at U.C. Santa Barbara. One Sunday in his first year in college — Cunningham’s parents had driven down for the weekend to watch him compete in a track meet — the family went for a drive through the mountains outside of campus when his mom commented how the road, which curved down the mountain, looked like a bobsled track.

Nick Cunningham

After some laughs (and a bunch of messages about bobsledding), Cunningham eventually transferred to Boise State University on another track scholarship. Once he graduated college, however, Cunningham was at a crossroads of what to do next with his life. Still buzzing with a competitive edge, Cunningham decided to try out for the United States Bobsled team. But how much experience did a California native such as Cunningham have in snow sports? Well, the answer was slim to none.

“I had skied maybe twice in my life to that point,” Cunningham said. “That was really it for my snow experience, but I went and I tried out. I figured worst case scenario, I got a great bar story to tell my friends down the road.”

Only a few months after his college graduation, Cunningham was walking into open tryouts; 18 months later, he was walking in the Opening Ceremonies at the 2010 Winter Olympics as a member of Team USA. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Cunningham had gone from “future is up in the air” to “future Olympian”.

After the Olympics, Cunningham was transitioning from brakeman to driver when he decided to join the New York National Guard and was accepted into the U.S. Army's World-Class Athlete Program. Cunningham explained he would not have been able to continue his bobsled career for as long as he did if it weren’t for the WCAP’s support, and the skills he acquired through being a soldier in the U.S. Army “helped [him] through the later part of [his] career.”

“My Olympic uniform meant so much to me and I never thought I would ever feel that for something else until I put on my uniform going into basic training,” Cunningham said. “I had that same sense of pride behind it. Going into the military was a way [for me] to continue my bobsledding career, but also a way I can do more than just slide. I can represent my country in two different ways.” 
Nick Cunningham

Cunningham went on to compete for the U.S. Bobsled team at the 2014 and 2018 Olympics and even coached the team for a couple of years after he got out of the Army. Eventually, Cunningham left the bobsled track for good and pursued his dream job as head coach of the track and field team at Monterey Peninsula College, where he still is today. While he may not be racing on two feet, that’s not stopping Cunningham from racing on four wheels.

“I grew up loving racing and watching NASCAR,” Cunningham said. “When bobsled ended for me, I knew that [car racing] was the direction I wanted to go. I saw Jesse [Iwuji] and what he was doing, and he helped me get my feet wet and opened the door for getting me on the track, getting behind the wheel of a car, getting comfortable taking laps, and pushing a car as hard as I could push it. [Car racing] is just like bobsledding. When I take off at the top of the mountain and I’m going 95 miles an hour, I get that same adrenaline when I was in a car.”

No matter the goal, it seems Cunningham always finds his way back to the race track, and he isn’t the only one.

Chris Walsh was an athlete his whole life — like Cunningham, Walsh was on his college’s track and field, and football teams. Although he always wanted to take his athletic career to a higher level, Walsh felt he didn't necessarily have the talent in his current sports to go any further than college. Since he did ROTC, Walsh commissioned out of college as an Air Force Special Tactics officer.

“Both of my parents were enlisted Air Force,” Walsh said. “I was always interested in service and joining in some capacity.”
Chris Walsh’s Instagram

However, in the process of becoming a special tactics officer, Walsh learned something interesting – that the U.S. Bobsled team did open tryouts. At first, Walsh didn’t think much of it as he was still in training, but then, one day, he tried out, got an invite to go to the Olympic Training Center in New York, and competed in his first race by the end of 2018. From then until 2022, Walsh trained with the U.S. team, but there was another race track that was about to grab his attention.

When he was stationed in Washington, Walsh got into racing motorcycles, so much so that he got a high-powered street motorcycle and joined a racing club. Because of the high risk of injury, Walsh had to take a hiatus from racing when he was bobsledding; from racing motorcycles, that is.  

“I was always a big F1 fan as a kid and loved playing all the racing games, but never had access to it,” Walsh said.” Fast forward, I started working for iRacing. I tried out a simulator and it immediately ignited the fire to go back to the racetrack. I got into some amateur endurance racing for road courses and within a year I was doing my first professional race with sports cars.”

Photo credits: Courtesy of Nick Cunningham, Chris Walsh’s Instagram