LAKE PLACID, New York — Hats off to Nick Cunningham. The 29-year-old bobsledder drove USA-2 to third place in men’s two-man bobsled at the first world cup of the season Friday. Even after running over a hat. With him was rookie brakeman Casey Wickline.
“I can only control variables on the sled,” Cunningham said with a laugh immediately after the race. “We ran over a hat in Curve 19, and we lost by 0.11. I’m going to go find that hat and keep it for a long time!”
Tied for the lead with defending two-man world champion Francesco Friedrich from Germany after the first run, Cunningham finished his second run 0.11 seconds behind Oskars Melbardis and Daumants Dreiskens from Latvia. Friedrich and brakeman Thorsten Margis then beat Cunningham by 0.26, and passed Melbardis as well, to win the season’s first world cup.
Steven Holcomb, piloting USA-1 with Justin Olsen, finished sixth in his first world cup since injuring his calf at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games last February. The injury turned out to be a torn Achilles tendon.
“I’m coming off a pretty good streak, seven two-man wins in a row in North America in the last two years,” Holcomb said. “To come out and finish sixth in the first (world cup) is a kick to the ego. But it is what it is. I understood that coming in. I had two bad runs, and that’s what happens."
Cunningham did not have to look far to find the offending hat. It was still trapped under his sled’s runners. He donned the torn-up, matted Elmer Fudd cap and took the mishap in stride.
“It is what it is,” Cunningham said. “My guys were telling me, if we told you we were going to get third at the end of the day, you can’t be too upset. We still get the American flag on one of those poles waving in the wind, so that’s all we can ask for.”
But he came so close to having the American flag run up the top pole. Cunningham, who took up bobsledding in 2008 and had won four world cup medals before today — none of them gold — was tied for first after the first run.
Second run, Cunningham and Wickline started second to last, with only Friedrich and Margis behind them.
“It’s a unique feeling going into the start house and being one of only two (teams) in there; it hasn’t happened that often in my career,” said Cunningham.
It hasn’t ever happened to Wickline, who took up bobsled three months ago. He is a firefighter from South Carolina who tried out for bobsledding on the advice of another firefighter. He loves the speed but isn’t fond of the cold.
Meanwhile, Holcomb was, un-customarily, far from the podium. But the three-time Olympic medalist only returned to training in September. The calf injury that he sustained at the start of the second run of the two-man competition in Sochi turned out to be far more than a strained muscle. It was a small tear on the side of his Achilles — “enough to wreak havoc,” he said. He was in recovery mode all summer and had not pushed a bobsled from February until the push championships in Lake Placid in October.
Ever-thoughtful Holcomb cited more than just fitness for his unusual off-the-podium runs. Besides Holcomb, Cunningham, Codie Bascue driving USA-3, and Olsen, the U.S. men’s bobsled team is comprised mostly of rookies this year.
Curt Tomasevicz officially retired, and Steven Langton and Chris Fogt have stepped back from the sport for a couple of years.
“Coming off of last year, we had an incredible team,” explained Holcomb. “Those guys were five-, six-, seven-year veterans, they’ve been pushing for a long time, they’re really good at what they do. I’ve got two guys this year who’ve never even been in a world cup race. Well, one of them has now (Alex Harrison, who slid with Bascue Friday).”
Holcomb also stated “you can’t go 100 percent for four years.”
“Sochi’s over, we’ve got a brand new team, let’s just take a step back, calm down, recover,” he added. “We have three years until Korea. It’s a rebuilding year. I hope people understand that and realize it’s going to take some time.”
Not that rookies are bad. Cunningham said the rookies have brought the fun back. The veterans have to remember to pass along their secrets.
“It definitely elevated us because it’s so easy to go through the motions every day,” said Cunningham. “Now we can’t do that. We have to go, we have to train, we have to get these guys to know what to do.”
Holcomb had the same set of brakemen — give or take a guy or two — for two Olympic Games. He often did not have to say anything to them. “Things just happened,” he said.
Now he is seeing the sport through fresh eyes.
“It’s been good, it’s been eye-opening,” he said. “Even today, I asked a question, they’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I have to remember they don’t know that. This is their first world cup.”
The goal this year — besides to win every race, he said — is to give the rookies experience.
“We have to find the best athletes, get a new team out here and go for gold,” said Holcomb, who still has his eye on winning Olympic gold in two-man — as well as reclaiming the gold in four-man.
As for Cunningham, his rookie, Wickline, has already made the medal stand: “(Casey) now thinks that’s the norm, so now we have to continue to keep this going.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.