GANGEUNG, South Korea — John Shuster stood with a rock in his hand and a gold medal in his sights, and suddenly he did not seem like the same John Shuster. His failure in the 2010 Olympics was ancient history. His failure in 2014 seemed irrelevant. His rejection from U.S.A. Curling’s High Performance Program four years ago was a footnote.
He was not that guy anymore. He stopped being that guy a week ago, when his U.S. men’s curling team fell to 2-4 in round-robin play, on the verge of elimination, and Shuster escorted his family to the far exit of the Gangneung Curling Center to put them on a bus, and his wife Sarah gave him the biggest pep talk he could, and he appreciated it but barely acknowledged it.
He sat down on the grass, looked up at the Curling Center, and thought, “This is silly. I’m getting my heart broken by the sport. This is silly. This is the Olympics.”
Shuster slept well that night. When he woke, he did something that all competitors wish they could do on command: He got hot. The Americans won three straight games to make the semifinal. They stunned Canada to earn a spot in the gold-medal game. Mr. T was fired up about them. Kirstie Alley engaged in Twitter banter with them. Speedskating legend Dan Jansen called them. Ivanka Trump showed up for the gold-medal match, and at one point she had Shuster’s son Tyler in her arms.
And now here was Shuster, ready to throw the final stone of the eighth end against Sweden, which happens to be the best team in the world.
Shuster was a man transformed. He was Mike Eruzione. He was Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson. He was Jesse Owens. He was Paul Revere. I may be reaching now, but I’ve subsisted on red-bean rolls and Pringles for two weeks, so cut me some slack here.
His throw was perfect, knocking out Sweden’s stone and giving the U.S. an astounding five points. A 5-5 tie became a 10-5 U.S. lead. But Shuster knew what the Swedes knew, and what most people watching at home or in the stands probably did not: Even before that fiver, it was already over. The Americans had all but won their first curling gold. Sweden’s Niklas Edin’s previous shot had left Shuster a clear, easy path.
“When that misses … we knew we were going to lose,” Edin said. “Five or two makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. If we lose two there, we’re going to lose the game.”
Edin is being ridiculous. Of course getting five made a difference. Not in the game, but for the story.
If you think the curlers look like guys who work at your local retailer, that’s because they are guys who work at your local retailer. Shuster works part-time at Dick’s Sporting Goods and spends the rest of his time as a stay-at-home dad. Tyler George is the general manager for his family’s liquor store, George’s Liquor in Duluth, Minn.; his Twitter bio says: “Buy your booze from me!”
In the middle of the gold-medal game, a fan shouted “I love your mustache!” to Matt Hamilton, who looked up and smiled. Hamilton said after, “I, believe it or not, don’t hate attention,” and his teammates cracked up.
And these are the guys who dropped a five-point dagger on the vile and evil Swedes.
“Two of the guys on the Swedish team were at Matt’s wedding,” Shuster said. “These are our friends.”
Oh, fine then. The Americans and Swedes are so close that they actually Facetimed between the semifinal and final. That is part of what made this so much fun: The Americans take themselves exactly as seriously as you would like. You could tell this meant the world to them. But they understood if it didn’t mean the world to you.
Anybody could appreciate this, though: After the disappointment in 2014, U.S.A. Curling decided it needed to ramp up its medal efforts with a High Performance program. These guys were not invited to join. Legend has it that they called themselves Team of Rejects.
“I don’t think Team of Rejects is the right term,” Shuster said. “I think it was just Team Reject.”
This may be true. But if the movie is not called Team of Rejects, I’m going to cry.
It was not fun being on Team Reject. John Landsteiner walked away from the sport for a few months. But Shuster said he approached “Every single day was with this journey in mind.” Within a couple years, they were welcomed back to the bosom of USA Curling, and—likeability alert—they harbor no resentment. Shuster thanked USA Curling for its “full support” the last couple years.
“They said, ‘Go to the gym,’ we went to the gym,’” Shuster said. “They said ‘These are some sports psychology things to work on,’ and we worked on that.”
Shuster lost 30 pounds. They started to stand out in the world of curling—not for how they played, but for how much fun they had. That mattered when they were on the brink of elimination here. There was no apparent sniping, no fear of what their teammates thought.
They had talked all week about being “the best versions” of themselves, and here they were.
They talked afterward about preaching the curling gospel, of using this time in the sun to get America excited about curling. Well, we’ll see. These stories don’t always have a lasting impact. I mean, Jamaica is not exactly full of bobsledders these days.
They may not remain famous. But they will always be gold medalists, even if they were handed the women’s curling medals at first. Getting here meant so much to Shuster that at times this week, he couldn’t even bring himself to talk about how much it meant to him. They do not play one of the biggest Olympic sports, but theirs was the best kind of Olympic story: a stunning run by people who believed in themselves when nobody else did. If you enjoyed it, call George’s Liquor Store in Duluth, Minn, and tell them Tyler sent you. Yes, they sell champagne.