Picture by 2018 Getty Images

After Covid scare, slim and refreshed John Shuster looking ahead to Beijing 2022 Olympics

The skip of the reigning Olympic champion rink has used the pandemic to lose weight, go fishing and recharge his batteries ahead of a push to make it to Beijing.
By ZK Goh

Reigning Olympic champion John Shuster knows all about the drama of coronavirus, perhaps more than most other top international curlers.

In March 2020, Shuster's wife Sara attended the U.S. Club National Championships and ended up contracting the virus, along with some three-quarters of the attendees at that event.

While Sara suffered from symptoms, Shuster and his two children – who were not tested for the virus – came through without symptoms. However, the American believes the family's battle with the virus has left him rejuvenated as he chases a first world title as well as a spot at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

The 38-year-old told World Curling that he lost 25 pounds – just over 11 kg – during the pandemic, and was able to spend time with his family and go fishing as he reset his mindset ahead of his push for an Olympic spot and the right to defend his Olympic title.

And, now fully recharged, Shuster not only wants another Olympic tilt, but also hopes to win Team USA's first men's World Championship since 1978.

Shuster training with a mask

When Sara returned to Duluth, Minnesota, from the competition in Washington, D.C., she came home with shortness of breath and lost her sense of taste and smell.

While Shuster and his sons had no symptoms, he told World Curling that all of them "essentially had [Covid]".

Speaking recently to the Curling News, he further explained: "The only one confirmed via testing was my wife – at that point, getting a test was really hard."

Everyone eventually recovered, and Shuster spent most of the pandemic fishing with his family and teammates, when they weren't on the ice.

Luckily for Team Shuster, the Duluth Curling Club remained open to them as national team athletes while closed to the general public, and they were able to train whenever they wanted – with masks on.

"I haven't thrown one curling rock this entire year without a mask on," he said in the Curling News interview.

Shuster's turning point while fishing

While fishing provided Shuster the opportunity to get away from Covid, one expedition in December proved a turning point for Shuster after nearly an entire year not competing.

Out fishing on a frozen lake, Shuster dropped a new mobile phone into the water.

He drove home from that trip thinking he would never see it again. But, drawing on his memories from the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics where his rink recovered from a 2-4 record in early round-robin play to go on a gold-medal run, he decided to return the following day to retrieve it.

That mission was successful – and his phone was still working.

"That's kind of where I turned the corner and really decided that I needed to control things I could control with the pandemic and everything going on," he told the Curling News.

That, coupled with his weight loss, left him feeling like he was in better shape. He wanted to see how good he could become.

"Winning or losing doesn't matter as much as that feeling of accomplishment of your team just constantly getting better," he pointed out to World Curling.

Growth of U.S. curling

It's easy for Olympians – especially medal-winning ones – to lose their way a little after an Olympic Games.

However, with curling being a small sport in the United States, Shuster's gold medal in 2018 left him and his teammates on a high that lasted nearly a year.

The team was invited on various talk shows, visited the White House, and also saw their post-curling futures secured.

Speaking to Canadian media outlet Sportsnet's Inside Curling podcast co-hosted by another Olympic champion Kevin Martin, Shuster said: "We really embraced everything that was offered to us and tried to do everything we could, because we didn't know how long that was going to last.

"One thing that did happen was our story did resonate with so many people that it's brought other opportunities along with it that are still continuing to go a long ways. I wasn't sure, if I ever retired from curling, what I was going to be doing, and now I have kind of a little bit of a speaking career going on because of this."

It also led to a boom in interest in the U.S., including in Southern states where ice and snow are not common.

Team Shuster even got to teach country music artist Blake Shelton the game.

"It is so exciting to see the growth that we have going on in our country as far as curling clubs being built," Shuster enthused.

"You have these major [metropolitan areas] that are building dedicated ice. Austin, Texas, just announced that they're close to having their finished dedicated ice curling club. Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia.

"These curling clubs aren't just being built, but they're being filled with people that are just excited to try out this sport that they're captivated by, especially with us winning and getting more of that television coverage and recognition."

Eyes on the Olympics

While winning the World Men's Curling Championships remains a career goal of Shuster's – one that he has a chance to realise in Calgary, Alberta, in 2021 after the 2020 worlds were cancelled – returning to the Olympics for a fifth time is, too.

Competition in the USA setup is heating up, with three American rinks in the world's top 20 – in fact, Shuster's team (20th) is the lowest of the three behind Team Korey Dropkin and Team Rich Ruohonen.

To get a shot at defending his title in Beijing, Shuster will first need to secure a top-six finish at the Calgary Worlds. Then, he needs to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials – winning May's national championships would qualify the team for the trials.

And subsequently, at those trials, "we have two other great men teams in our country [Dropkin and Ruohonen] that we're gonna have to beat," he acknowledged to World Curling.

If he falls short of that, he may still get another shot at Beijing – in the mixed doubles competition.

"I really enjoy playing mixed doubles," he said on Inside Curling. "Cory Christensen and I have had a really good last few years. We lost the finals in the Olympic trials in 2018, we won the national championship in 2019 and lost the finals of the national championship last year.

"If we get another chance [at the Olympics], great. I love playing with Cory and she's a phenomenal partner and teammate just like my [men's] teammates. We're really looking forward, we have our berth into the Olympic trials by finishing second at nationals last year.

"I was trying to continue to develop different facets of the game, and for me mixed doubles is one of those things I had a lot of fun with in the last few years."

Don't be surprised to see Shuster in the Chinese capital next year, one way or another.