GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Everybody loves a great comeback story, and I’m going to try to explain this one in a way that sounds like English. This is the problem with curling. It’s not that hard to understand if you watch it for a few minutes. But then you hear people talking about skips and hammers and fresh paths and houses, and you start shopping online for a Curling-English Dictionary, when what you really need to hear are the words of curler Marc Kennedy, a Canadian gentleman who did not sound like one Thursday.
“We play a game that comes down to millimeters,” Kennedy said. “It’s a really f---ing hard game at this level, right?”
Right. And in one of the great upsets of these Olympics, the U.S. men stunned Canada, or at least Canadian curling fans, with a 5–3 semifinal win. Canada, which had won three straight Olympic gold medals in the sport, will now try to win bronze.
The U.S. team, led by John Shuster, is headed to its first-ever gold-medal game on Saturday. If that doesn’t turn you into a fiery ball of nationalistic zeal …well, the game starts at 1:35 a.m. Eastern time. Maybe you’ll be sauced by then.
The gold-medal game will be great theater, and here is why: The American men should be long gone by now. They lost four of their first six games in round-robin play. Japan and Sweden obliterated them. (That’s a characterization of the final score, not a curling term.) The Americans had to win their last three games of the round-robin stage just to make it to the semifinals.
They beat Canada, Switzerland, and Great Britain to do it—and those are three good teams. Then the Americans beat Canada again in the semifinal, and now they play the mighty Swedes, who just sent Switzerland packing for … well, Switzerland, I presume. But first, the Swiss play Canada for the bronze. This is stunning news to our friends north of the border, who have won silver, silver, gold, gold and gold in the five Olympic men’s curling competitions.
We will get to Canada’s curling angst in a minute. First, let’s talk about the American curling renaissance.
The Americans have won one curling medal, a bronze in Turin in 2006. But Shuster and his guys arrived here believing they could win it all. So much of curling is teamwork, and so much of that teamwork is a result of trusting each other. They proved here that they have that trust.
Shuster struggled terribly at the start of these Olympics. He was asked if he ever gave up hope, and he said, “Our team has had our backs against the walls plenty of times, but come on. It’s the Olympics. Who is going to give up hope?”
The American victory over Canada here was masterful. The game was tied entering the eighth end (or inning, or frame—call it whatever you want, but there are 10 of them), and then the Americans picked up two points in the eighth. The U.S. outwitted the Canadians (or perhaps the Canadians outwitted themselves) in the ninth end, giving Americans a 4–3 lead and the hammer (or last licks, if this were baseball) in the 10th.
It ended with Shuster basically needing to execute one of the simplest throws in the sport to clinch it. The throw was only slightly harder than a quarterback taking a knee. Shuster said he thought “this looks like a practice shot that I throw in league, when I’m with my friends and there’s nobody around. Let’s enjoy this.”
How will they enjoy it?
“I might go back to the village and have a McFlurry.” American curler Matt Hamilton said.
What kind of McFlurry?
“Well, they only have Oreo in the village, so, Oreo.”
The bad news for the Americans is that the Swedes are some kind of evil curling monster. The good news is that the Americans don’t care. They were supposed to be finished a week ago, and now they’re in the gold-medal game.
Now, back to our Canadian friends …
“It’s not the end of the world,” Kennedy said. “We’re not gonna die.”
(Well, they are gonna die. But probably not as a direct result of this, and hopefully not for a very long time.)
“It’s overplayed that Canada is a favorite,” Kennedy said. “We come from a rich history of curling, where we won everything, and that’s not the way it is anymore. Anyone that’s been watching the grand slams of curling, we’ve got European teams winning all the time. They spend nine months of the year in Canada training, and learning our strategies and using our coaching and using our ice. So this is the new normal for Canada. People need to get used to it.”
The Americans can certainly get used to it. They are 10 ends away … er, one game away from a gold medal. If they pull this off: McFlurries for everybody! And make ’em all a large.