US bobsledder Nick Cunningham eyes 2018 Olympics

U.S. bobsled driver Nick Cunningham listens to the national anthem and then the Army song to start his pre-race warmup, getting himself in a nationalistic state of mind before every race.

His reasoning is simple.

''I've got to do what I can to see that flag flying on that podium,'' Cunningham said. ''I want to see that flag every time.''

Such is why people squeeze into skintight racing suits and brave frigid temperatures and slide at 80 mph or more down icy mountainside chutes every winter. The World Cup year for bobsled and skeleton opens Friday in Lake Placid, New York, and not only is it the start of a new season but also the opening act of the four-year buildup toward the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Cunningham is the pilot of USA-2 in both two- and four-man, challenging three-time Olympic medalist Steven Holcomb for the top spot. Cunningham's season is off to a big start already after winning races at the national team trials in Lake Placid and Park City, Utah, in October and November.

Cunningham is also driving a sled - the original ''Night Train'' - that won a four-man gold at the Vancouver Games and has won world-championship golds as well. But in that sled with him this winter are three rookies, which is an every-four-years rite because it's common for many veterans to leave the sport after an Olympic cycle ends.

''Everything I do has 2018 in mind,'' said Cunningham, a California native who is finishing his masters' degree in athletic coaching education at Ohio University. ''From crews, to testing out guys, testing equipment, everything has that in mind. But I'm trying to win every single race, every training session, every everything, I'm trying to do my best and that's where this program is now.''

Cunningham grew up wanting to be a race-car driver. His father worked for Valvoline, which explains some of Cunningham's obsession with speed. Missing birthday parties, friends' weddings, anniversaries, it's all worth it when he sees that flag.

''I definitely haven't accomplished what I want to in the sport yet,'' Cunningham said. ''I'm definitely going for 2018 and there might be a 2022 in there. I look over the mountain every single day and I go back to my room, wake up and head back to the mountain. It's easy to feel like life is passing you by, but I have a goal in mind.''

Here's what to know going into the season:

MIXED SLEDS: Canada's Kaillie Humphries and American pilot Elana Meyers Taylor will be driving in some four-man races this winter, though not Lake Placid. They'll be the first two women to compete against men on the World Cup circuit. Humphries won gold and Meyers Taylor silver in women's bobsled at the Sochi Games.

NEW FACES: More than half the U.S. World Cup bobsled and skeleton sliders are rookies. More than two dozen international sliders in Lake Placid this weekend are expected to make World Cup debuts.

THE SEASON: Lake Placid is the first of eight World Cup stops. The season ends with a ninth competition, the world championships in Winterberg, Germany in late February and early March.

BOBSLED FAVORITES: Holcomb is the reigning two- and four-man World Cup champion pilot. Double Olympic champion Alexander Zubkov of Russia has retired. Humphries and Meyers Taylor are clear favorites on the women's side, along with Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Greubel Poser of the U.S.

SKELETON FAVORITES: Latvia's Martins Dukurs dominated the circuit last winter, then lost the Olympic race to Russia's Alexander Tretiakov. Dukurs and Matt Antoine of the U.S. are likely to be in contention most weeks, and Britain's Lizzy Yarnold is the one to catch in women's racing.

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