John Shuster: USA’s Mr Curling on the highs and lows of an Olympic dream

Team USA's skip speaks exclusively to Olympics.com about his life in the sport of curling ahead of his fifth Games. Among the many topics touched on in a frank discussion are the unparalleled grace of releasing a rock, why his gold medal is falling apart, how (at 39) he's mistaken for a coach among all the young of the Olympic Village -- and just how mean Twitter can get. 

By Jonah Fontela
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The state of John Shuster’s Olympic gold medal tells you much about the man.

“It’s been in so many hands, the ribbon is pretty much destroyed and the medal is starting to come apart,” the veteran USA curler told Olympics.com about the gold medal he earned at PyeongChang 2018. “I just love, you know, sharing it with people.

“For me, it’s as much you’re winning a medal for your country as your team and yourself,” added Shuster, who’ll compete in his fifth Olympic Winter Games this February in Beijing, where he aims to become the only man to win multiple curling golds since the sport became a medal event in 1998. “It’s really cool to share that experience.”

There’s no flash to Shuster. Squeeze him all day and you won’t get a drop of it.

Northern Minnesota nice

Talk to the 39-year-old for a few minutes and the just-plain niceness his northern corner of Minnesota is known for, comes shining through. When thanked for sitting for an extensive interview at such a busy time, Shuster just laughed.

“Everybody thinks I’m busy,” said the man, a picture of modesty in golf shirt and USA Curling cap having just packed his two young sons, ages six and eight, off for school with brown-bag lunches. “My curling takes up about three hours of my every day and the rest of the time I’m a stay-at-home dad, the housekeeper, whatever.”

Shuster trains at the Duluth Curling Club, an hour’s drive from where he grew up in Chisholm, Minnesota – a town of less than 5,000 people ten minutes from Hibbing, birthplace of Boston Celtics legend Kevin McHale and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. He admits that throwing practice rocks is “more quality than quantity” at this stage in his decades-long career.

He’s heavy into numbers and strategy and a self professed "lover of mathematics and physics.” By his own informal count, the number of stones he’s thrown – bending to that elegant point where apparatus and athlete meet – is up in the hundreds of thousands.

USA's Mr Curling

While his Olympic teammates, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Chris Plys, all have straight day jobs, Shuster, who threw his first stone at age 12, makes his living in the sport. He’s married to a curler and his father was a club curler too -- also a skip. It’s safe to say the sport comes first, behind family, in Shuster’s list of beloved things.

“Curling’s what I do,” said Shuster, who can talk all day about the types of granite quarried off the “misty island of Ailsa Craig” and how, where and why they’re used in a curling stone. “It’s pretty much my life.”

The sport catches a strange kind of wind every four years when the Winter Olympics roll around. Curling is played on a sheet of ice with so-called 'rocks' or 'stones' (really a composite of various types of granite attached to a handle) and brooms to reduce friction between stone and ice. The players are mic’d up so TV viewers can feel, in a very intimate way, a part of the unhurried action.

Olympic curling draws unlikely fans from all corners of the watching world too. The A-Team's Mr T became obsessed with Olympic curling in 2018, and five-time NFL Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, who, since retiring from the gridiron, formed a curling team and is taking aim at a spot in the next Olympics.

Shuster, the defending gold medallist and a fixture at the Olympics for five full cycles, is the face of the game in the States – and an evangelist for its many charms.

Gold the hard way

That he doesn’t keep his gold medals behind glass, safe on a pedestal to examine each morning over coffee, is evidence of a selfless character. It’s even more remarkable considering how that gold medal came very much the hard way.

In 2006, age 23, Shuster was a kid, just “a few years out of juniors”, with a keen eye for the angles. He lucked his way, by chance and happenstance, onto a Pete Fenson-led team that managed to qualify for the Winter Games that year in Torino, Italy.

“I fit in a lot more in the Olympic Village back then,” laughed Shuster, now approaching 40, of winning a bronze medal that seemed “almost too easy” at the time. “These days people look at me and think I must be a coach of some sort.”

John Shuster's 2018 gold
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

But that podium glory in Torino proved a false dawn. What came next was a study in disappointment and, sadly, humiliation. In 2010 in Vancouver as skip of his own team, he was the man who called the shots (literally) and who took the brunt of the blame when things went sideways.

He missed the last four shots in four different games as Team USA finished dead last.

“It scarred me pretty hard,” said Shuster who was eventually, in a rare move, replaced on the ice with Chris Plys. There was more scarring to come, too. Four years later, at Sochi 2014, Shuster and his team finished second-from-bottom.

“I was really scarred by that,” he added of the losses, and the fallout on Twitter – new as a tool of cruel taunts in 2010 and finding its legs by 2014. “People were mean. Social media went kind of crazy then and it was hard to deal with and painful. I didn't know it at the time, but that was something I had to get past.”

PyeongChang Redemption (eventually)

The next Olympic cycle, ahead of PyeongChang 2018, had a cinematic-underdog quality to it for Shuster.

“I guess they figured: this guy failed in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics and he’s getting a little older,” Shuster said of being cut from consideration by Team USA’s high-performance program.

But the sport of curling, one that exists mostly in the grassroots and values the notion of merit, rallied behind Shuster’s newly named 'Team Rejects' as they went on to win the Olympic trials (a fourth straight for Shuster) over a team of hand-picked would-be successors.

But the redemption PyeongChang promised took some time to reveal itself.

Shuster and his team lost four of their first six matches in a miserable round-robin. It looked like it was all going wrong again. But one loss from elimination, they scratched their way through to the semis.

“It was halfway through the 2018 Games when I finally got over all of that (from 2010 and 2014) – I came to know that what matters is the three guys next to you on the ice,” said Shuster.

“It was a learning experience,” he added with a chuckle remembering when he and the 'Rejects' reached the top of the podium – a first gold in Olympic curling for the United States. “But I didn’t learn it until halfway through the 2018 Games, which is kind of sad and crazy.”

Pushing for more

“I feel like I’ve been getting better and better every year,” said the man who recently knocked off young up-and-coming skip Korey Dropkin’s team for a fifth U.S. Olympic Trials win. “And I’m in the best shape of my life.”

He’s dropped 25 pounds (11kg) since his early, heavier days. And while Shuster still looks more like a neighborhood dad than the top performer in an Olympic sport, his desire to succeed again is palpable.

Beijing 2022 is a long way from Torino 2006. When Shuster remembers those Games, all those years ago, it’s the only time in an hour-long chat that he is overcome with emotion.

“I remember feeling like I was floating,” he described of coming around the track at the Grande Torino Stadium during the Opening Ceremony and trying to spot his family, who’d “spent a fortune” to travel and support him. “We came around the first loop and there they were. My family made their way all the way down to the railing and I don’t think I’ve ever ugly-cried so hard in my life.”

He’s 16 years older now. He’s suffered the slings and arrows, the cruel slurs of #JohnShusterSucks trending on twitter, to find himself a gold-medal favourite in his fifth Olympics Games with nothing to prove.

Beijing beckons

“I loved the Olympics so much growing up,” said Shuster. “After that last rock in PyeongChang, shaking hands, and then you look up in the stands and find your family and you’re on the podium – It was so much pride and validation.”

“It was like, in that moment (in PyeongChang), I knew everything I worked for in my entire life wasn’t for nothing,” said Shuster on the cusp of just maybe bringing another gold medal home, where you can be sure he’d have it ready to share with his neighbours.

Heading back to the scene of his highest highs and lowest lows, he's crouched in a familiar position, one he’s been in hundreds of thousands of times.

“It’s just something about the grace of it,” said Shuster of that moment of rare elegance, about to let the rock go, ever so gently, into a wide world of possibilities. “You just can’t find it anywhere else.”

John Shuster and Team USA in 2018
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

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