GANGNEUNG, South Korea — John Shuster, the face of U.S. curling for the past four Winter Olympics — and all the good and bad those experiences have entailed — for the first time in his life Saturday had a gold medal draped around his neck. Moments before, he and his teammates had done what jubilant curlers do, raised their brooms aloft in screaming excitement over an improbable victory. Yet at that moment it was hard to believe how close his dream here had come to crumbling apart.
Last Sunday, after a loss to Norway, the Americans were on the cusp of elimination, again.
After the game, with family headed to a hotel and his wife’s encouraging words ringing in his head, he found a grassy spot outside the venue, sat down and came to a realization.
“This is silly,” he told himself. “I’m getting my heart broken, I feel like, by this sport — and this is silly. Seriously, this is the Olympics.”
He slept soundly that night for the first time in a long time. His team would not lose again.
Matt Hamilton, center, reacts as he and his teammates are awarded the gold medal after beating Sweden in the men's curling finals at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Feb. 24, 2018. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Five straight victories culminated Saturday night in something that has never happened before, an Olympic gold for the Americans when they defeated Sweden, 10-7, before a flag-waving throng from back home. Shuster and his four teammates — Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo, who served as the team’s alternate —defeated Sweden, the top-ranked team in the world, so soundly it conceded the match with one full end, or period, still left to play.
The victory was as decisive as it was unexpected — to everyone, perhaps, but the Americans themselves.
“This,” George said, “is a team that never gives up.”
The United States is not known as a curling powerhouse. Americans had never won a gold medal in the sport. For that reason and more, members of the team expressed hope that curling will become more than a cultural curiosity every four years. Perhaps the team’s success here can help.
“We want our sport to be loved by our country as much as we love it,” said George. “There’s a reason why we play it, and there’s a reason why we love it as much as we do.”
The win came with its share of thrills.
On Saturday, Shuster delivered the biggest shot in the history of U.S. curling when he cleared two Swedish stones with his final rock of the eighth end to score 5 points.
“I think during the entire end, we could kind of feel it building,” Shuster said. “Their margin for error got incredibly small.”
Tyler George, center, directs his teammates, Matt Hamilton, right, and John Landsteiner, as they compete in the men's curling finals against Sweden at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Feb. 24, 2018. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Shuster had executed a perfect shot: a blend of cool-handed finesse and foolproof strategy. His team’s lead was suddenly insurmountable.
“We knew we were going to lose,” Swedish curler Niklas Edin said.
This was Shuster’s fourth straight Olympic appearance, and he has experienced all the joy and heartbreak that the games can offer. After helping the U.S. to a bronze medal at the 2006 Turin Games, his next two trips to the Olympics were unmitigated disasters for the Americans: last place in 2010 and next-to-last place in 2014.
It got so bad that the word “Shustered” was added to Urban Dictionary. (Definition? “A verb meaning to fail to meet expectations, particularly at a moment critical for success or even slightly respectable results.”) Then, in the summer of 2014, Shuster was sidelined from USA Curling’s high-performance program.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
He found three curlers who still believed in him: George, a liquor salesman who competes in 8-year-old sneakers with holes in them; Hamilton, a sweeping wizard renowned for his mustache; and Landsteiner, who works full time as an engineer.
The team became known in curling circles as Team Reject, a moniker they came to embrace. And they began the slow climb back to respectability, through the national ranks, through the Olympic trials and through the Olympic bonspiel, or tournament, here in South Korea, where they surmounted all kinds of obstacles.
The United States had to beat Canada — Canada! — twice in four days just to reach the final. (Canada is really good at curling.)
“From the day that the 2014 Olympics came to an end, every single day was with this journey in mind,” Shuster said.
That much was clear as the members of Team Reject stood together atop the medal podium. Their journey was complete.