Changing course

July 09, 2009, 10:33 a.m. (ET)

John Benton never expected to be signing his name on anything other than utility bills and birthday cards. But there he was at the 2009 Ford World Men's Curling Championships in Moncton, Canada, signing autographs for adoring fans.

Oh, how life changes once you qualify for the Olympics.

"Never, I never expected to ever be signing autographs for anything," said Benton, a U.S. curler and a senior engineer at Fairview Health Services in Minnesota. "It was a really, really unique experience, totally amazing."

Benton and Team Shuster won the 2010 U.S. Olympic Trials in the aptly named Broomfield, Colo., where life as the 39-year-old curler knew it changed.  

Beyond the influx of interview and appearance requests in the buildup to the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver, Benton is also in the midst of his busiest offseason since he started curling when he was 6. Instead of relaxing, the Olympic team is spending about eight long weekends at a training camp in Green Bay, Wis., working on everything from physical conditioning to team strategy.

"Life has changed quite a bit just in that there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about our training, scheduling time off work, trying to arrange for friends and family to go to Vancouver," Benton said. "At the time we won the Trials, Vancouver looked like it was pretty far off in the future. Just a short couple of months later it seems like it is right around the corner and we don't have a lot of time to do what we want to do."

Finally making the Olympics was a dream come true for Benton, who has been nicknamed "GG" for great grandpa by his younger teammates. But it almost wasn't to be.

"About two days before John (Shuster) asked me to curl on this team, I was actually ready to retire and go into coaching," said Benton, who says he still plans to enter the coaching realm eventually.

"Based on the last couple of years that I had competed on the men's level, I had felt like I was very capable of competing at a high level, but finding the right team and the right situation to really make the Olympics a reality, there were tons of times when I said this probably isn't going to happen."

Benton, of St. Michael, Minn., and Shuster, who lives in Duluth, Minn., struck up a friendship in 2006. That February, Shuster was part of the team that won the first Olympic curling medal for the United States when it won bronze at the 2006 Torino Olympics.

"I was pretty excited by that and actually went to see John and his teammates at the airport when they got back from Torino," Benton said. "John and I established a friendship after that [and] talked off and on during seasons when on other teams."

After the 2006 Olympics, Shuster had left the bronze medal team to head his own team.

Meanwhile, Benton's long-time team decided to break up about two years ago, and he was starting to get pretty serious about a move into coaching.

Last May, Benton had a decision - take a position coaching a high-level men's team or join Shuster's team.

He picked Shuster.

It turned out to be a good choice. Along with Shuster, Jason Smith, Jeff Isaacson and alternate Chris Plys - who had all played together for about three years prior - Benton and the team survived a dramatic qualifying campaign and were really starting to gel by the time they reached the Olympic Trials.

"It was probably again a little different for me, being quite a bit older and really working for (the Olympics) for a long, long time," Benton said. "For me personally, people talk about (qualifying for the Olympics) as being a dream come true, and I don't know a better way to state it than that. It literally has been kind of a whirlwind since we won. I go through moments of still kind of disbelief that I'm actually going to the Olympics. The experience has been almost surreal."

Since starting the sport in 1975, Benton doesn't remember a busier summer than the current one, as he prepares for the Olympics. The men's and women's Olympic teams will be working on everything from physical conditioning to sports psychology to team systems to tactics to strategy in Green Bay this summer. Being about a block away from Lambeau Field, home of the NFL's Green Bay Packers, the curlers will also get to use some of those facilities.

"I would say that most curlers, basically if they are not going to the world championships, their season pretty much ends at mid-April,'' Benton said. "And while we all might have our activities and do some working out in the gym or whatever, the summer is really the offseason until say mid-September. So this schedule is pretty aggressive and it's going to be interesting to see which results you get from curling for an entire year nonstop."

Any expectations?

"That's one thing that has been obviously asked by a number of people, is where do we see ourselves?'' Benton said. "Do we have a shot at a medal? I think the biggest clue that we got was how we performed at the world championships.

"Most of the people in the know, the media and people around the sport, kind of had us slotted in eighth, ninth or 10th at the world championships. And I don't want to say we surprised anybody, but I think we opened a few eyes, because after the first week we were tied for third. We ended up fifth. We think it bodes well for us because we didn't play as well as we know we can and we still had a chance at making the playoffs. So we think a medal is certainly in reach and a gold medal is certainly possible."

And that means, at least for now, coaching will have to wait.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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