Svrluga: John Shuster was leveled by the sport he loved, then he got back up and won gold

  • Gold medal winners from left: United States' curlers Joe Polo, John Landsteiner, Matt Hamilton, Tyler George, John Shuster and captain Phill Drobnick celebrate during the men's curling venue ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) Natacha Pisarenko

  • United States skip John Shuster reacts during the men’s curling final against Sweden at the Winter Olympics. AP

Washington Post
Sunday, February 25, 2018

This wasn’t supposed to be the scene on the third Saturday of the Olympics, when as many people have gone home as remain behind. And just because the team of curlers for the United States blew up their sport’s orb over the previous 48 hours, we can’t pretend – most of us, at least – that we suddenly know the terminology and strategy of this mesmerizing sport: “end” and “stone” and “house” and the like.

But man, wasn’t that an absolute blast? Saturday evening, a team – sorry, a “rink” – led by a man who had essentially been fired by his sport’s national governing body, followed one of the Pyeongchang Olympics’ greatest upsets with another of the Pyeongchang Olympics’ greatest upsets, this time for gold. If there’s a cover-of-the-magazine image, it’s of John Shuster – formerly banished, now embraced – pumping his right fist as the eighth end concluded, because he blasted open the game by delivering the stone that provided a 10-7 victory over heavily favored Sweden.

“I can’t tell you how un-nervous I was,” Shuster said.

It seems like an unremarkable utterance. But that feeling in that moment, it represents the complete transformation of a man and a team and, they hope, a sport in the U.S.

Let’s not pretend this was the “Miracle on Ice” from 1980 in Lake Placid, and it’s not even as significant as the American gold in women’s hockey from two days earlier. All this happened in the middle of the night back home, and we can’t just declare, in one evening, that curling somehow unified a broken country.

But it can’t hurt, either.

“Curling really embodies what I think all of us hope that humanity can be,” Shuster said. “And that’s honestly caring for each other and really being compassionate to the people around you.”

Yep, it’s hyperbolic and hokey. But Shuster’s eyes were red when he said it. Who’s to strip a man of his genuine emotions?

So put aside the jokes about how many beers must be stashed at the end of each sheet of ice, and embrace Shuster’s story, a very Olympic story. The redemption he felt – and that’s what it was, not a stretch in any way – was pure and hard-earned. The Americans ended this Olympic tournament with five straight victories, and along the way became cult heroes. Mr. T, of all people, fired them up on Twitter. Dan Jansen, the American speedskater whose own story of redemption forever will rank among the best the Olympics can provide, added his support.

There was an edge to all of it, like maybe it bordered on mockery, particularly when you factor in big Matt Hamilton, the mustachioed face of Shuster’s rink.

“They have a lot of fun,” Swedish skip Niklas Edin said. “They take it easy, so to speak. They have a lot of spirit.”

What’s important to note, too: They care. Man, do they care.

Shuster’s journey, by this point, is well documented. A bronze medalist at the Turin Games in 2006, he was the face of the Americans’ failures at the next two Olympics, when they finished 10th and ninth, respectively. The people who make weighty curling decisions in the U.S. thus decided they had to overhaul the entire system. They wanted more athletic athletes. They wanted curlers who understood sports psychology. They couldn’t keep doing the same thing. And so it was assumed they couldn’t keep sending the same guy.

But a funny thing happened: Shuster assembled a squad, complied with all of USA Curling’s wishes, and earned his way here.

“We never had conversations about 2014, 2010,” vice skip Tyler George said. “It was always this team, now. What are our goals? What are we capable of? ... When something you love so much brings you pain, it’s hard to rationalize why you continue to do it.”

That might have been the thinking over the past couple of years. But then Shuster’s rink dropped four of its first six games here. The Americans were well on their way to feeling transformed as athletes but delivering the same crushing result.

The night he lost to Norway to fall to 2-4 in this Olympic tournament, Shuster walked his wife and two young sons to a far door at the Gangneung Curling Centre. She tried to “talk me off the ledge.” Distraught, he barely could thank her. He left his family and headed outside to sit on a knoll by himself. He looked at the curling venue.

“This is silly,” he said he thought to himself. “I’m getting my heart broken, I feel like, by this sport. Seriously, this is silly.”

He thought about Jansen, the skater from Wisconsin who, as a heavy favorite in two events in the 1988 Olympics, fell twice, burdened by the death of his sister. Four years later, he finished both races but gained no medals. Finally, in 1994: gold in the 1,000 meters.

“He got back up, and he wrote his story,” Shuster said. “And he’s an Olympic champion.”

So Shuster and his guys got back up. They reeled off victories over Canada, Switzerland and Great Britain to reach the semifinals. There, they stunned Canada again, exacerbating a curling crisis in a country that understands this sport deeply. And in the gold medal match, they hung with Sweden through those first seven ends, when it was 5-5.

The key delivery belonged to Shuster in the eighth end – which, for those not well versed in curling (points to self) is the same as an inning in baseball, except there’s 10 of them in a standard match. (If you’re not familiar with an inning in baseball, well, sorry. Can’t help you.) The Americans held the hammer, the final stone. Sweden had two stones in the house. (Again, a translation: the bull’s-eye-looking thing at each end of the ice.)

But Edin made an error when he narrowly missed his final shot of the end. The Swedes were exposed. Shuster threaded his final stone past two helpless Swedish stones that sat short of the house, then into the house. There, it clanged into one Swedish stone – knocking it toward the other. Both were expelled from the house. The Americans had – count ’em up – one, two, three, four ... five stones – a fiver that turned a tie game into a 10-5 U.S. advantage, a blowout.

“We knew we were going to lose,” Edin said.

Which meant the Americans knew they were going to win. What a thing. Ivanka Trump watched from the stands and even picked up Shuster’s 4-year-old son Luke at one point. The chants of “USA! USA!” rang from the flag-waving American throng, and when Hamilton heard someone yell out, “I love your mustache!” he turned and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

This sport, with the sliding shoes and the brooms and the stones, can feel frivolous. Tell that to these guys who created that scene Saturday evening.

“I never will stop thanking these guys,” Shuster said, and he looked down at George and Hamilton and John Landsteiner and Joe Polo, the alternate.

At the end of the evening, those five carried out that most triumphant of Olympic duties: climbing to the highest level of a stand, slightly above the Swedes, even another notch above the Swiss, who took bronze. They couldn’t have looked more stunned when asked to bend at the waist so a medal, a gold medal, could be draped around their necks. Each of them exhaled, trying to slow their heart rates. How could that work?

And when “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, they sang, and their faces grew red, and when it concluded, they wiped the tears from their eyes. In such a scene, it doesn’t really matter the sport or your evaluation of it. What matters is the road it took to get there, the passion of the characters involved, and that moment on the medal stand on the final Saturday of the Olympics.