A year after a series of matches that changed the lives of USA’s curling men’s team forever, four-time Olympian and team captain John Shuster reflects on how he and his team-mates overcame adversity to win the country’s first ever curling gold.
Even before USA’s men’s curling team won gold at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 12 months ago, there was a moment that changed their fortunes forever.
The USA had suffered four defeats in their opening six games of a seven-match round robin, including defeats to Norway and Japan on one particularly disappointing day. However, with elimination a distinct possibility, the quintet, consisting of “skipper” John Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo, did the unthinkable and defeated reigning champions Canada – gold medal winners in 2006, 2010 and 2014 – for the first time. The victory was as sensational as it was much needed. Crucially, it kept the USA in the competition, and it was encapsulated by a dramatic finale that saw Shuster secure victory with a stunning last shot.
“That moment opened the door for us,” Shuster explains of the win that kickstarted a run of five consecutive victories. “Had we lost that match we were going home. We were done. We had endured a really tough start to our campaign; losing four of your first six matches is not the ideal or conventional way to go about winning gold. However, from the very beginning, as a team, we seemed to thrive in adversity, and from that win against Canada we found some momentum, and continued to play at our peak.
“Now, as a group, we look back at that Canada match and have a little laugh about it. We joke that a quarter of an inch in either direction on my last rock and we wouldn’t be doing any of the things we’re doing now. Our lives would be completely different.”
Curling is a sport of fine margins. Millimetres can dictate success or failure, and Shuster had been well versed in the latter. He had been on the receiving end of criticism at both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games as both he and the USA underachieved. At Vancouver 2010, he missed so many crucial shots that he was dropped from the team before the end of the Games. Four years later, in Sochi, Shuster got off to slow start and the USA finished ninth. Shuster was vilified by the media and by the public on social media.
And even before PyeongChang 2018, Shuster and his team had been surrounded by controversy. Shuster had been cut from Team USA following the 2014 Games, but instead of giving up the sport he loved, he trained harder and formed his own team. Hamilton had also been rejected by Team USA. Landsteiner was talked out of retirement, while George had been a rival of Shuster. The team clicked. They won the US Championships in 2015 and 2017 before winning the US Curling Trials to seal their place in PyeongChang.
And so, with Olympic disappointment looming again ahead of the Canada match, Shuster admits to a moment of soul searching. He returned to the Gangneung Curling Arena on his own after the 8-2 defeat against Japan in an effort to recalibrate his mind and avoid further Olympic heartbreak.
“That was a big moment for me, that reflection when we had won two and lost four of those first six games,” he says. “I thought to myself about what my kids would be able to tell their kids about me some day in terms of my career on the ice. At that point, I don’t think I had done enough to give them the image that I was trying to portray. So I made a big decision right there and then to just enjoy myself and have fun playing the sport I had focused on for most of my life. With three round-robin matches remaining, and the pressure on, I was just determined to have fun. We ended up winning all three, which then took us to the semi-finals, and the final.”
To say life has changed for the quintet since last year’s victory would be an understatement. Shuster had already won a bronze medal at the Turin Games in 2006, but that wouldn’t prepare him for what followed winning gold.
Now, the team-mates are recognised on a daily basis and they have spent the last 12 months riding the crest of a wave after returning home as national heroes. Indeed, while Shuster chats for the purpose of this interview, he is interrupted by someone who recognises him.
“I enjoy it,” admits the 36-year-old. “I’m not ever going to be like a Cristiano Ronaldo, where everyone recognises you, but more and more people are saying ‘hi’, and that’s nice.
“Life has been really hectic, but in a good way,” he continues. “In 2006, I came home and things were forgotten about fairly quickly. Life just returned to normal. In contrast, the last year has been far from that. Between the celebrations and the gold medal tour around the country immediately after the Games, to all the opportunities that have followed, including public appearances which, I imagine, only present themselves to champions of their sport, it has been amazing.”
However, more than simply revelling in his success, Shuster is hoping the USA’s first ever gold in curling will have a long-lasting legacy.
“I think the biggest thing for all the team members since PyeongChang 2018 has been the opportunity to visit clubs around the country. We know what the sport of curling has done for our lives, and what it has brought to the lives of the people around us. It’s a sport built on friendship, camaraderie and sportsmanship and all the best things in people, so if we can get to grow our sport and those values then that’s great, and we take great pride in that.
“I’ve always wanted to see if someone could make a living as a curler in the US,” he adds. “Some other teams have done it, like Canada and Switzerland, for example, but it’s never been done in America. That’s what I look to for the future of my career, and if I or we as a team can open that door to future curlers then that, for me, is what it’s all about.”
Shuster has had little time to watch the events of last year. In 2019 alone, he’s been busy adding a seventh US Championship title to his honours list, but he still takes great delight in talking about his Olympic conquest. Shuster had been a key player with the winning rock in the nerve-shredding win against Canada, and again when he starred with a percentage of 97% in the next match, against Switzerland.
We know what the sport of curling has done for our lives, and what it has brought to the lives of the people around us. It’s a sport built on friendship, camaraderie and sportsmanship and all the best things in people.John Shuster
“Tyler has watched that game against Switzerland, which took our win tally to four. I’ve only watched the final, but Tyler tells me that I have to go back and watch the Switzerland game. He says that I carried the team on my shoulders and won the game for us, and I don’t really remember it like that! Maybe one day I will watch it again.”
Shuster starred again in the final, dubbed by some as a ‘miracurl on ice’. With the score tied at 5-5 against Sweden, the top-ranked team in the world, Shuster cleared two Swedish stones with his final rock of the eighth end to score 5 points. There was no margin for error, and Shuster executed the perfect shot. The USA’s lead was insurmountable.
“I knew then that we were going to win gold,” says Shuster. “Sharing that moment with my teammates, but also with all the people in the stand who had shared the journey with us, and who had supported us every step of the way, that was the bit that sticks out for me.”
With that display of calmness and skill, all of the disappointments of the previous Winter Games, and all the criticism Shuster had endured, were gone.
“I think those previous Olympic experiences gave me a bit of perspective about what we needed to do as a team to be successful,” explains Shuster. “The difference between winning bronze and gold, for us, was making the right decision at the right time and the right shot at the key time. This time we had a bit more fun and embraced everything a bit more.
“I had always read what people had said in the media and on social media, I’ve always found it hard not to. It feels good when it’s good, and even when bad it can be funny… but then sometimes it can be absolutely brutal. That was the case in 2010 and 2014, but in 2018 we tried to embrace the whole experience a bit more. Matt’s moustache developed its own persona, and he was compared by many to the Super Mario character, and that gave us a lot of laughs. Overall it seemed as though people weren’t quite as mean this time. In fact, Matt’s moustache was getting more attention than my previous failures, so that was good!”
Now, Shuster is very much in a happy place. A father of two and a national sporting icon, he says the pressure is off, meaning he can enjoy both his curling, and his parental duties, without any burden of expectation.
“The pressure is off now after winning gold,” he concludes. “We don’t have to win anything ever again for me to be able look back and say I’ve had a successful career, I feel like I’ve already achieved that now. There are things I still want to accomplish, for sure, but I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. I think the next thing is the World Championship, and then hopefully we’ll keep it rolling to go back to the next Olympic Winter Games and defend that gold.”
And such has been Shuster’s rollercoaster ride as an Olympian, that you wouldn’t rule it out.