The whole thing feels preordained. Of course Darrell Cunningham was going to have an affinity for the Olympics that scaled far beyond the biennial national pride. Every birthday for the Grays coach is a reminder of what makes the Olympics special.
While the rest of the country was watching a rag-tag bunch of American amateur hockey players upset the Soviets, Cunningham was coming into the world. He’s still not sure if his parents were able to watch the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Perhaps they got someone to toss a tape in the VCR and record it or maybe one of the greatest games in history was the last thing on their mind.
“She got home from the hospital and I’m sure that’s what she watched, I don’t know,” Cunningham said of his mom with a chuckle. “It kind of makes you destined.”
Forty-one years, err, 10 Olympic cycles later, Cunningham’s love of the games hasn’t wavered. Those five multi-colored rings still represent something, still provide nostalgia of a childhood dominated by national heroes like Florence Griffith Joyner, Carl Lewis, Dan Gable and others – some of whom would make appearances at the Pocatello Simplot Games, weaving a love for the Olympics into every fiber of Cunningham.
The dichotomy of that decades-long passion is that he’s often surrounded by young kids who weren’t alive for half those Olympic years or don’t care much about the pageantry and tradition of the games.
He’s been with the Grays since their inception in 2014. Being around youth isn’t new. But this Grays team is extra young. Nightly, the Gate City general manager and assistant coach looks at a roster full of guys born after the millennium – including 21-year-old head coach Rhys Pope and 17-year old catcher Eli Hayes.
“On the baseball team, other than (36-year-old pitcher) Chris Needham, there’s not a single player that wasn’t born after I started high school,” Cunningham said. “It feels like the stone age because I spend all day with a bunch of young kids.”
Any Olympics pre-London are likely blurry for them, so as the Tokyo Olympics wound down, Cunningham made sure to share his personal experience working the games.
In 2000, the organizing committee behind the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics posted applications for different jobs within the games. Likely because he had a background in law enforcement, months later Cunningham received a letter notifying him that he had been selected to work firearm security in Salt Lake. It was a dream fulfilled.
“It may have been one of my grandmothers proudest moments is when I got the letter,” he said. “My aunt and uncle paid the deposit on my apartment until I could get down there and get everything handled. The Olympics were a really big deal for my family.”
He arrived in Salt Lake in January for training and stayed through the Paralympics in March, a two-month endeavor that allowed him to interact with the world’s best athletes.
In the Winter Olympics, the only sport that requires a gun is the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. For obvious security reasons, the guns each athlete competed with weren’t allowed in the Olympic Village but instead stored in a trailer just outside the gates. Each biathlete had an individual locker within the gun cage to secure their guns. The locker, though, had two keys: one for the athlete and one for the security personnel.
Sometimes, they just needed to grab their gun to head out to Park City for the event. Sometimes, they wanted to conduct a dry practice at the crack of dawn.
“I was telling this story to the baseball guys,” Cunningham said. “There was a 14-year-old girl from the Czech Republic who just got selected to the team right before the games and she was the alternate., That little girl practiced so much. Every day at 4 a.m., our phone would ring and she’d be like, ‘Can you meet me?’
“The level they practiced at and the deviation to their craft, that was amazing. That was the coolest thing.”
Coolest thing in a two-month span that included a flurry of unreal experiences. These blue berets the U.S. Olympians wore at the opening ceremonies were all the rage that year, so Cunningham traded some stuff to secure one for his family members. He said hello to Wayne Gretzky. He watched a free concert by the rapper Coolio inside the Olympic Village where Olympians and non-Olympians just felt like people.
On some level, people get their dream job or meet their hero and the expectations don’t match the reality. People often leave disappointed, not happy with what they saw behind the curtain. Cunningham’s experience at the Olympics only enhanced his view of the games and the ambience they provide.
For different reasons, Cunningham hasn’t been back to work another games, though he’s hopeful he’ll have a task when the Summer Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028. If that comes to fruition, it will mean a dozen Olympics in between his initial taste of the first-person Olympic experience and his second – a hiatus far too long.
“I remember sitting there with my now-wife watching the Beijing (Olympics) on her TV in her apartment,” he said, “and she’s like, ‘How can you be so depressed and so happy at the same time? And I was like, ‘Because I want to be there.’
“They say Disney is magical. No. The Olympics are 100% magical. It’s the best of humanity getting together to compete and support each other.”