USA curler John Shuster: Another charge at glory, history in Beijing

USA curling legend and PyeongChang 2018 gold-medallist John Shuster survived a scare from some young guns at the recent U.S. Olympic Curling Trials in Omaha, Nebraska — but the 39-year-old and his veteran team pushed through to book a place in Beijing where history and a possible repeat-gold awaits.

By Jonah Fontela
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

"It was the hardest I’ve ever worked to beat anybody my entire life,” admitted veteran USA curler John Shuster after edging a team of young up-and-comers at the U.S. Olympic Curling Trials this weekend to book a place at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Shuster and his team roared back to pip a best-out-of-three finals series over a team skipped by Korey Dropkin, still just 26 and very much the bright and shining future of USA Curling, in Omaha, Nebraska. The result sends the 39-year-old USA curling skip back to a second straight Olympic Games for a chance to defend the surprise gold medal he won at PyeongChang 2018.

The USA Trials final was a battle between experience and future possibilities, with every member of Shuster’s team over the age of 31 and Dropkin’s team — tipped for many glories to come — all in their 20s.

And while it was tempting for some to think of Shuster and Co as yesterday’s men heading into Trials, they’ve now got another tomorrow coming up at Beijing 2022 — under the brightest of lights in the curling world. In the end, it was experience, and the ability to keep a cool head when the chips were down, that turned the result Shuster’s way.

Ups and downs aplenty

The trials win — and a place among the world’s best curlers at the Beijing Games this February — sees Shuster become the first athlete to participate in five Olympic curling competitions since the sport became a medal event. It’s an achievement that can be matched by Norway’s 46-year-old Torger Nergård (should the Scandinavians qualify for Beijing).

Shuster’s current USA team is a collection of Olympic veterans and four of the five won Olympic gold with him in 2018. Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and a new team member Chris Plys, who replaced Tyler George upon announcement of his retirement after winning PyeongChang gold, were never likely to rattle when the pressure was on in Omaha.

Shuster’s no stranger to success on the biggest stages.

Hailing from Duluth, Minnesota, in among the spiritual northern home of the sport of curling in the USA, he first struck Olympic precious metal way back in 2006. Then, in Turin, Italy, just a fresh-faced 24-year-old, he helped Team USA win a first-ever curling podium place — an historic bronze as part of the legendary Pete Fenson’s rink.

With that success, Shuster struck out on his own and found out just how hard things can get as the skip of your own team and chasing big things. It was a bold move and it brought, at first, bitter disappointment. Olympic stumbles followed in 2010 and 2014 both.

Big woes in Vancouver and Sochi

At the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada, with Shuster as skip — the focal point of a team and the man who claims the final shots, the glories and suffers the most criticism when things go wrong — USA finished dead-last.

Four years later, in Sochi, things were better, but just barely so, as Shuster and his Americans finished second-from-last.

“People were mean,” he said at the time of the wave of criticism he faced. “I could probably read mean tweets for three hours from 2010 and not read the same tweet twice.” He added, to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “The sport I loved just caused me so much pain and agony.”

After being cut from the USA’s high-performance team, Shuster turned those eight hard years of Olympic disappointment into a spur. He started his own team and named it ‘The Rejects’ — taking the hits right on the chin and showing a useful sense of humour in the bargain.

PyeongChang 2018's golden surprise

The Olympic Games in 2018, in PyeongChang, brought redemption for Shuster and those so-called Rejects, three of whom are still in his team heading for Beijing 2022 in a few months’ time with an eye toward an unlikely title defense.

Representing the United States, things looked rough once again on Olympic ice as Shuster and the gang lost four of their first six matches in a miserable round-robin in PyeongChang. One loss from elimination, they scratched their way through to the semifinals.

There they went on to beat Canada and Sweden both to lift a first-ever Olympic gold in curling for the United States.

Heading into this year’s U.S. trials, Shuster had dropped 25 pounds (11kg) and, though he missed out on the chance to qualify for Beijing with the mixed doubles team, he put in a sparkling performance. He brought his men's team back from an early deficit against the USA’s curling heroes of tomorrow — led by Dropkin — between 12 and 21 November to seal the opportunity for an Olympic return.

History on the cards in Beijing?

No one has ever won multiple gold medals in men’s curling, but Shuster — accustomed to success and adversity both — now takes dead aim at a further piece of history at the Beijing 2022 curling competition which runs from 2 to 20 February at the Beijing National Aquatics Centre.

"When your back is against the wall, that's where your character really shows," Shuster added to the Star-Tribune after the win Omaha. "Everybody on our team, we're all fighters.”

"It's going to be special to get a chance to go back [to the Olympics] and see what we can do, see if we can't get another gold."

USA's curler John Shuster and his U.S. Trials winning team from 2021
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

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