If you think John Shuster may have lost a little desire and determination after skipping his team to a gold medal at the Olympics, you absolutely need to hear the story of how he retrieved his iPhone from a very cold, watery grave, when most would have felt powerless to do anything but leave it there.
The tenacity with which Shuster went after that device, lost during an ice fishing excursion last December, serves as a reminder of how he and his teammates turned the 2018 Olympics into triumph after a terrible start. That victory, incidentally, is also at least partly responsible for Shuster deciding he could mount a determined recovery mission for that ill-fated phone, which lay—for almost an entire day—22 feet below the frozen surface of a Minnesota lake, half-buried in silt.
There was more than just that to talk about, though, as Shuster was preparing to try and skip the United States to its first world men’s curling championship title in more than 40 years.
There’s his family’s frightening, personal experience with COVID-19. His team’s adjustments to a scarcity of game action ahead of the worlds. And there’s the hunger that remains for Shuster, despite that remarkable trek to the summit of curling’s Mount Olympus, three years ago.
“A world championship is definitely something that is missing,” Shuster says, and I know we will talk more about that.
But, hang on. I’m obsessed with this phone salvage operation and what it means in the scheme of things.
“Pretty new iPhone,” Shuster says, laughing, when asked why he would go to the lengths he did to attempt to retrieve the thing.
If the moments after that initial plunk were filled with disappointment and a sense of ‘how could you do that, ya doofus,’ the hours that followed came with a growing sense of determination, and, ultimately, a success that Shuster feels he has parlayed onto the ice with a renewed sense of can-do.
“It was kind of a big moment for me, this winter, honestly,” Shuster says, tethering the phone recovery to the resurgence he and his team experienced at the Olympics and also to an emergence from this past year of struggles and frustration.
Shuster was ice fishing on an unnamed lake (you don’t give out information on prime spots, he instructs me, slyly) when it happened.
Having taken his phone out of his pocket to make a quick call, he then set it on his lap, and forgot about it. When he stood up, that device dove right into the hole at his feet, and straight down. That’s a draw to the button any of us could do without.
“I could see the top edge of it, that was stickin’ up out of the silt on the bottom,” says Shuster, who like many modern fishermen, has some fancy bells and whistles to aid in the task of catching fish, including an underwater camera. Sure, he could see it. Sure, he knew exactly where it was. But there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He got in his car and headed for home—feeling deflated, helpless.
That, you might recall, was the state of Shuster’s emotions after he’d gotten off to a 2-4 start at the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Famously, he’d taken stock of where he was, how he’d gotten there, and what he could do to make the experience something other than the miserable one it had come to be.
You probably know the rest. Shuster and his team decided to relax and enjoy what was left of the competition, and to play the way they like. Five straight wins later, capped with a five-spot in the eighth end against Sweden’s Niklas Edin in the gold medal game, he and his Duluth-based squad had won it all.
It’s a life lesson that has not left Shuster.
“The fact that I was able to, mentally, turn that corner at the Olympics, I think, maybe has given me the tools to do that in any facet of my life now,” he says.
He used those tools in 2020, as the pandemic raged on. Emotionally fatigued, Shuster was feeling drained by the time December came around. His phone disappearing into icy waters was a capper.
Shuster and his family have been directly affected by Covid. His wife, Sara, was infected with the virus while taking part in the U.S. Club Nationals, in Washington, D.C., last March.
Sara suffered shortness of breath, back pain and a loss of taste and smell during the ordeal. Shuster and the couple’s two children, he says, came through it symptom-free.
“The only one confirmed via testing was my wife,” he says. “At that point getting a test was very hard.”
It’s that experience, undoubtedly, that has led Shuster to feel grateful for the successes of the events that have been held in the Calgary bubble, so far, with The Scotties, Brier and Canadian Mixed Doubles Championships all being held without any confirmed cases of Covid. The protocols have been rigidly adhered to, and that’s just fine by Shuster.
“I'm excited to be in a safe environment that they’ve, obviously, shown that they have,” he says. “As athletes that's what we want to do is play. And to play in a safe environment, in a safe place is an incredible opportunity.”
Optimism is now in place for the 38-year-old skip. It wasn’t there just prior to Christmas, though, on that drive home from the lake. But Shuster made a psychological pivot during that drive, and has built on the success of his audacious phone recovery operation ever since.
“I realized, in that moment, as I was driving home, that if I could shift my mind into thinking ‘how can I get this thing back,’ then I could stop thinking about ‘how did I put this in the lake?’”
Aha. That sounds a little like the shift that went on back in PyeongChang, I suggest. Or am I being a little too cute in drawing parallels?
“One hundred per cent I thought about it,” says Shuster, emphatically, “because I was trying to think of a time where I was playing as awful as I had felt when that thing went down the hole.”
“And that was where I went back to.”
So, damn it all, he figured. Doesn’t matter that an iPhone is guaranteed to be waterproof for only about a half an hour and only in water up to 20 feet, with his phone at least two feet beyond that depth. Doesn’t matter that it’s met an untimely end, it’s the principle of the thing. He was going back to get it the next day.
Teammate Chris Plys joined Shuster on the expedition. They set about to retrieve the marooned device by first dropping a jig straight down the hole, all the way to the bottom, so they could have a point of reference when they sent down the camera.
They flattened a portion of the frame of a circular landing net so that it would scrape a bit more of the lake floor when they submerged it. The net had a seven-foot extension handle, so that wasn’t gonna be long enough. They attached it to sixteen feet worth of roof rake handle (for those who don’t know, a roof rake is used to pull big drifts of accumulated snow off your roof).
When you do the math on that, you get 23 feet of reach. That didn’t leave much to grab. “There was only about a foot of the handle of the roof rake sticking up outta the water,” says Shuster, incredulously.
Fidgeting with the jerry-rigged scooper, the first awkward drag of the area was a flash, I guess you could say. It got them nothing more than silt passing through the net.
Adjusting the camera slightly, Shuster saw that he’d missed his intended target area by a smidge. He and Plys tried again with another swipe.
This seemed promising, based on the images they were seeing. They’d gotten something. They pulled the pole all the way up.
“The phone was in the landing net,” Shuster says, triumphantly.
Now, that phone carcass could have a proper burial, or maybe a place of distinction beside Shuster’s gold medal, another reminder of what can be accomplished when you recalibrate your attitude.
Indeed, that particular victory of ingenuity and dogged determination has been a catalyst for an upswing in optimism for Shuster.
“I think that's kind of where I turned the corner,” he explains, “and really decided that I needed to control things I could control, with the pandemic and everything going on. It’s kinda crossed into curling and, honestly, we’ve had a really, really good couple of months leading up to world championships here.”
With Plys at third, Matt Hamilton at second and John Landsteiner at lead, Shuster will try to skip the U.S. to its first men’s world championship since 1978. The team has not played much this season, deciding against going to competitions back in September and October.
What the foursome has had no shortage of, is quality practice ice. Their home club in Duluth has been closed to the public due to the pandemic. The ice stayed in, though, and Shuster’s crew has been able to practice at their convenience.
“It’s actually the best practice ice I’ve had in my entire life,” he says, appreciatively. “We’ve had freshly-prepped sheets every single day.”
So while the ice in Calgary won’t be shockingly different for the Americans, being able to play without a mask might be. Shuster reports that he and his mates have been masked up for practices throughout the winter, and he’s actually gotten quite used to it.
“It's funny I haven't thrown one curling rock this entire year without a mask on,” he says. “So the other day I pulled my mask down and took a slide just to see what it felt like.”
“Who knows, I might play Worlds with a mask on,” he adds, laughing. “If I don't like the way I'm throwing the rock right in the beginning, or something.”
Knowing that Shuster’s team won Olympic gold and was then swept up in a whirlwind of post-victory celebrations that included things like an appearance on The Tonight Show, you could be forgiven for thinking they could be completely satisfied with the accomplishment, choosing to glide through the rest of their careers, carried by that glow. This is much the same team that rose to the top of the podium in 2018, with the exception of Plys taking the place of Tyler George at third.
All that the Olympic gold medal means, though, says Shuster, is that “the pressure is now off. We never have to win another game to say that we had a successful career in curling. I mean, there's one hundred per cent truth to that.”
He insists that the drive for more is there. The great phone salvage is part of a renewed competitive edge, but that’s not all. Shuster remembers, as a boy, seeing the banner from the 1976 world championship team of Bruce Roberts hanging in the club in Hibbing, Minnesota.
“It kind of ignited my drive in curling,” he says, of that banner. “And a world championship is definitely at the very top of that list of something I want to achieve in my career. So there's still a lot of hunger.”
When Shuster and Plys recovered that phone from the cold sediment at the bottom of a frozen lake, it was just the kind of thing Shuster needed to remind him of the big turnaround at the Olympics, and to chart a confident course towards the worlds, after a difficult year.
Having succeeded in the recovery, Shuster quickly set the phone aside and decided that “as long as we’re on the lake, might as well fish.” Ten minutes later, he looked more closely at it. He says the battery indicator read ’45 per cent.’
“And it was on,” he adds.
Please, please, please, I say. Tell me you’re talking to me on that phone right now.
“It’s the only phone I got, man,” he says, laughing.