MONTEREY -- It's time to drive.
Nick Cunningham's eyes grow wild as he grabs the wheel of a silver Prius to chauffeur visitors around the forest-strewn town where he grew up.
This might not be a sleek, carbon fiber-built bobsled that Cunningham hopes to pilot to a medal at the Sochi Games in the coming days.
But it will do for the bull rider, surfer and former Monterey High sprint star. A few days before Christmas, Cunningham was itching to take a ride on a sun-swept California day during a break before the final push to his second Olympics.
"This is my therapy almost," he said while cruising past Monterey pines, cypress trees and coast live oak.
This is how a bobsled pilot rolls when not guiding land jets through icy curves at speeds reaching 90 mph. Through Cannery Row. Around kelp-forested surfing spots that dot the jagged coastline. Deep into Carmel Valley's fertile fields.
Golden State sledder
Burning question: How does a Central Coast kid become a bobsledder?
With Cunningham, 28, there's almost always a story behind an answer.
This one involves a joke. Tim and Wendy Cunningham had gone to UC Santa Barbara in 2003 to watch their son compete at a track meet.
Afterward, the family took a side trip into the Santa Ynez Mountains. While descending on a curvy road, Wendy Cunningham blurted out, "This looks like a bobsled track."
To which Tim Cunningham told his son, "You're fast, why don't you try out for the bobsled team?"
Why not, Cunningham said.
"I was surfing every day and just hanging out," he recalled. "I had never really been to the snow."
He forgot all about the little joke until bobsled material started arriving in the mailbox. Tim Cunningham, a Valvoline Oil executive, had discovered that many sprinters and football players migrated to bobsledding.
"I thought, what the heck," said Tim, a former San Jose State baseball player who roomed with future Spartans coach Sam Piraro.
Tim Cunningham, whose brother Gary had a successful high school baseball coaching career at Bellarmine Prep, would have to wait awhile.
His son left Santa Barbara to enroll at Monterey Peninsula College, where he played football. Cunningham then transferred to Boise State to run track.
After graduating in 2008, Cunningham remembered the information about bobsledding. He went to Lake Placid, N.Y., for a tryout.
The parents thought their son would become a skeleton racer because at 5-feet-11, 150 pounds, Cunningham was a bit small to push a bobsled. Coaches recruit guys weighing 225 pounds who have sprinter speed and football power. It also takes a certain personality: "You've got to be fearless," Cunningham said. "Once you are in that sled going 90 miles an hour, you are at the mercy of anything."
But coaches recognized the potential of a man who jumps on the backs of bulls and captained his college track team. They asked the sprinter to bulk up. Cunningham didn't realize it yet, but in 18 months he would be competing at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Behind the wheel
Cunningham switched to driving after helping push Mike Kohn to 12th in the two-man and 13th in the four-man in Vancouver. He had caught the bug as a child when building a pushcart with a sleek bobsled body. The wild child used to bomb down steep streets in Skyline Forest, avoiding cars, trees and anything else that might cause sudden impact.
Driving suited Cunningham's personality. Brakemen -- or push athletes -- are interchangeable parts. As the pilot, he manages the whole operation. Cunningham spends hours in the sled garage working with mechanics, technicians and coaches to figure out how to save a hundredth of a second, which can be the difference between earning a medal and finishing fourth.
After a strong first half of the season, Cunningham enters Sochi ranked sixth in the world in the two-man competition but only third among the American pilots.
However, he surged past Cory Butner in the final four-man race before selection Jan. 19 to win his country's second spot. Cunningham's fourth-place finish in Igls, Austria, showed his potential.
Reigning Olympic champion Steve Holcomb in USA-1 is a medal favorite in both events, but Cunningham said, "I'd rather lose every race and win gold at the Olympics than win every race and choke at the Olympics."
It's why he acts like a runaway bobsled before races. Cunningham triple checks everything. Are the runners sanded? Is the sled greased and waxed? Does the toolbox have extra runners, bolts, sandpaper, acetone and WD-40?
Every so often, doubts creep in about his chosen pursuit. Is he really putting his life on hold for this?
Just as quickly the uncertainty fades. Too much to do. The attention to every detail helps prevent accidents in this risky endeavor. Cunningham has hurt teammates and himself.
He points to his side just above the hip where a deep bruise has formed. It happened when he jumped into the 24-Hour Fitness-branded two-man sled during a World Cup competition in the fall.
Cunningham slipped off the seat and scraped his side on a sharp edge. He collapsed in the sled, and thought, "Oh god, just drive." Cunningham couldn't sleep on the injured side for weeks.
At 462 pounds, the four-man sled is almost 100 pounds heavier and less forgiving on curves than the two-man contraption.
"Two man is like driving a Ferrari; the four-man is like driving a city bus," Cunningham said.
Call to duty
Cunningham is able to live a vagabond existence because he is a sergeant with the New York National Guard who is assigned to the Army's World Class Athlete Program. It's the only way he could afford to continue in one of the most expensive sports going. Sleds cost between $100,000 and $150,000.
Cunningham didn't sign up for six years just to compete. He takes his service role seriously, underscored by his response when Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York City in 2012.
He and a luger in his guard unit reported to their commander after the hurricane struck that October. Although their unit had been activated, the athletes were told to return to training in Lake Placid, almost four hours north.
Instead, they drove to the city to help. The men stopped in Queens to check on the family of a skeleton racer. Then the duo drove around removing debris, clearing drains. They found the worst-hit streets and went to work ahead of the guard units that were awaiting orders.
"That wasn't even my military duty," Cunningham said. "That was my American duty."
The cowboy way
Idaho is where the daredevil dabbled in bull riding. He won't call himself a bull rider, but the boot-wearing Cunningham knows his way around rodeo. He works as a horseback tour guide in the Adirondacks in summers.
Sometimes he sounds like a lonely cowboy. Bobsledders travel the World Cup circuit from September through March.
"Everyone else is getting married, buying homes, having kids, and I'm hanging out in Spandex in the snow," Cunningham said while passing newlyweds posing for photos at Monterey's Lover's Point.
He thought he had found his match last year in Canadian skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth, who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and has qualified for the Sochi Games.
The Alberta native also is a competitive barrel racer. Last spring, Cunningham and Hollingsworth drove her horse trailer from Calgary to a ranch in Ledbetter, Texas. They lived in the trailer for three months. Perhaps survived is more apt.
"We pulled the ejection chord and that was it," Cunningham said. "Put up the white flag. It's tough dating an athlete."
We had to ask about speeding tickets. Cunningham glances across the steering wheel of the Prius with a sheepish grin. The answer is on his face.
"I made it all the way until I became a bobsled driver," he said.
It happened last year when Cunningham got speeding tickets within two weeks in two states going the same speed in the same speed zone.
The first happened in New York while driving 81 mph in a 65 zone.
"But it was flow of traffic," Cunningham protested.
The other occurred in Montana on his way to fetch Hollingsworth in Calgary. A 75 mph zone abruptly became 65. The speedometer still read 81.
"He was sitting right behind the sign," Cunningham said of the patrol officer.
Since then, the Olympian uses cruise control. But all is good in the Prius.
"You can't go fast," Cunningham said. "It's like an oversized golf cart."
Cunningham stopped at a stone bleacher at the Monterey High football stadium, and announced, "This is where I used to eat lunch every single day."
The placid bay and white water from waves can be seen in the distance.
Cunningham loves returning to local schools to work with aspiring sprinters when he's not training. He wants to teach and coach someday.
After Sochi, the bobsledder plans to speak to as many area schools as he can. His message is simple: Never say never. He recalled entering Monterey High as a scrawny kid who experienced bullying. The Cunninghams still joke about all the times someone told Nick that he couldn't do it.
"Watch me go out there and live my dream," Cunningham says to naysayers.
Watch him. Muscles arched, hands clasping the edge of his sled. Then a hoof, hoof, hoof and a leap into the cramped quarters of the hulking machine. The speed builds as the steel runners crease the track with a piercing screech. Cunningham is alive and in his element.
He is driving.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.