The Nest

USA Curling Was The Cinderella Team We Needed

Mat Adler, Staff Writer

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Monday, February 19th. It was teammate Matt Hamilton’s birthday, but John Shuster wasn’t having any fun. After spending twelve tumultuous years trying to rewrite his legacy, Shuster found himself staring down the very position he had been running from: elimination at the Olympics. Despite being one of the most talented throwers in the world, he could never seem to put it together there, continually choking away glory on the world’s biggest stage. No amount of success in World Championships would make up for it.

Shuster craved that glory. It first drove him to break up the most successful US curling team in history. Then it drove him to consider retirement. But all the while, it drove him, to the point where, as he said, he was taking the Pyeongchang Olympics too seriously and not having enough fun. That rigidness led him to throw away an easy winning shot against Norway, and send US curling one loss away from elimination.

John Shuster took up curling in 1997. Within a decade, he would find himself as the lead (first thrower each end) on Pete Fenson’s team, winning three national championships in a four-year span and earning a place in US Olympic history, winning bronze in 2006. That was the first — and, until this year, only — curling medal in US Olympic history. But Shuster thought he could do better. So he broke up the most accomplished US curling team in history, to skip his own team. They beat out Fenson’s crew to win nationals and make the Olympics, but finished dead last in the tournament, with Shuster actually getting benched in the process. They would do little better in 2014, finishing second-to-last.

And that’s the short story of how Shuster got cut from the US national curling team. He received an email one day explaining how USA curling was implementing a new, High Performance Program, to develop the next generation of American curlers. And how he wasn’t invited.

The longer version of the story involves something of an addiction to pizza (he was once quoted as saying “if I don’t have pizza three or four times a week I’m not happy”), and an athlete who, by his own admission, wasn’t particularly athletic. It involves a man who sat out on his balcony in Sochi, asking himself, “was [curling] worth all the sacrifices [he’d] made? Was it worth the sacrifices that the people around [him had] made?” It involves “mean tweets [that could’ve been read] for three hours,” and an Urban Dictionary term synonymous with choking.

John Shuster, however, is a born competitor. Failure doesn’t discourage him, it energizes him. As soon as he found out that he hadn’t made the HPP, he posted a message on Facebook: “the high performance program decided to go in another direction but if anyone wants to join my high performance team, shoot me a message.” He “got a lot of messages.”

Shuster eventually settled on fellow HPP reject Matt Hamilton, and together they recruited Tyler George (he of the 2010 National Championship with Pete Fenson), and enticed John Landsteiner out of retirement. “The Rejects,” as they called themselves, immediately won the National Championship, and were thereafter invited to the HPP. Which they accepted, under the condition they could keep their team together. Which they did. And they won the National Championship again in 2017 before making it to the 2018 Olympics.

Old habits die hard, though. The best US curling team in over a decade choked away several close games in the Pyeongchang round robin preliminary competition, including the shot against Norway that revived mentions of “shustering.” Shuster was under a lot of pressure to perform, and wasn’t delivering.

So on Matt Hamilton’s birthday, Shuster decided to loosen up. He decided, win or lose, he needed to have more fun. And he did. And in the process, he delivered a decisive victory over Canada, a team looking to defend a third-straight gold medal. Hamilton “[didn’t] think there [was] a better present.” Shuster was so overcome with emotion in the postgame interview that he was unable to speak.

That win over Canada led to a win over eventual fourth-seed Switzerland, which led to a win over eventual tiebreaker-team Great Britain, and Shuster’s team, which had once looked dead, was now in the playoffs. Three days and one greatest shot in US curling history later, “The Rejects” won the first-ever US Olympics gold medal in curling. Or… they were supposed to. (The mistake was later corrected.) Not even flying home were they cut any slack.

“The sports world wants and needs to tell stories of heroes. It cries out for myths of men and women who overcome obstacles, strive for greatness, are champions of individualism. Actual life is much more complicated,” wrote Zito Madu of SBNation. John Shuster and the US Olympic curling team is an exception. A man who was forced out of the sport he helped cultivate, spending time bartending at his curling club and practicing while his son napped to stay in the sport, who gathered a team of cast-offs to charge back onto the world stage and snatch the most unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat. Now that’s a story of heroes.

(Credit for the idea of this story to Rodger Sherman‘s piece profiling Shuster in advance of the gold medal match.)

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