Just A Stone’s Throw From Sochi

By Greg Bates | Dec. 20, 2013, 10 a.m. (ET)
John Shuster reacts during the Olympic Qualification Event match between USA and Japan on Dec. 12, 2013 in Fussen, Germany.

Now that the initial relief and excitement of having qualified for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games is over, John Shuster and the rest of the U.S. men’s curling team have less than 50 days to prepare to compete on its sport’s biggest stage.

Team Shuster punched its ticket to Sochi in dramatic fashion after making an improbable run last week at the Olympic qualification event in Füessen, Germany. 

Sochi will mark Shuster’s third trip to the Winter Games, having earned a bronze medal in 2006. Jeff Isaacson and Shuster were teammates in 2010 for the U.S. team that placed 10th. Shuster’s teammates John Landsteiner and Jared Zezel will be making their Olympic debuts, and alternate Craig Brown, whose sister, Erika, is the skip of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Women’s Curling Team, also will make the trip to Sochi.

“I think it’s going to be huge to have all that Olympic experience,” Shuster said. “I can see that working to our advantage for sure.”

Shuster and his teammates will compete in two major events prior to the Winter Games, a tournament in Scotland just after the new year and the Continental Cup in Las Vegas, Jan. 16-19. Those final tune-ups will be key in determining if Team Shuster is peaking in time for the Winter Games.

After a last-place finish at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Shuster and Isaacson have their goals set high for Sochi.

“We know we’re better than what we showed in Vancouver,” Isaacson said. “We want to get on that medal podium.”

“You can’t say it’s gold or bust,” said Shuster, “but at the same time, for me I just feel like there’s an opportunity to get on the podium and to finish well and to win a gold medal. That’s why we put in the work we’re putting in is to go and get to the top of that podium.”

Shuster’s rink won the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling, which were held in November in Fargo, N.D. But the men still needed to secure a spot in the Winter Games for the United States so it had to compete in Germany after winning the Olympic trials.

Team USA started the tournament in Germany 2-2 in the eight-team field. But then Team Shuster pieced together five straight wins to repeatedly stave off elimination and earn the final spot for Sochi.

The feeling of making it to the Winter Games never gets old.

“I can’t even put it into words, it’s an incredible feeling,” Isaacson said. “We’ve worked a couple years now to get to this point, so we worked our butts off.”

“I think our team just did a great job of early in the week finding our groove and sticking to routines that we’d been doing over there and really just focusing on the next game and next shot,” Shuster said.

Despite having a few hiccups against its first few opponents, Shuster and his teammates really came through at the most critical times. The guys stayed positive through thick and thin.

“We certainly never felt like we were out of it,” said Isaacson, who throws in third position. “We knew we were capable of winning. If we played the best we could, we knew we could come out of there.”

Team Shuster lost its second game of the qualifier to Germany on the last end, and that fueled the team the rest of the competition. That provided a spark and Team Shuster was completely different from that point on.

“That fourth game I think we finally started finding what we had going in early November,” Shuster said. “That’s why I really wasn’t that surprised when the wins started rolling, because the (U.S.) trials were a tough, tough test.”

Team Shuster finished the round-robin portion of the qualifier with a 5-2 record and landed in a four-way tie for first place.

After beating South Korea, 7-5, Team Shuster trailed the Czech Republic, 3-2, late in the final match of the qualifier. Shuster and his teammates didn’t fold, instead scored five points and held a commanding lead by the eighth end. Team USA hung on for an 8-5 victory.

“We’re playing against teams that also have their Olympic dreams on the line, so you know exactly what they’re feeling trying to get there, too,” Shuster said. “To be able to win those games when those people are having the same pressure and drive and working as hard as you have, that’s a big deal to win those games.”

Team Shuster is made up of an interesting mix of athletes. Shuster, 31, and Isaacson, 30, are the two Olympic veterans, while the team’s two sweepers, Landsteiner, 23, and Zezel, 22, are relative youngsters in the curling community. Brown, the team’s alternate, is 38.

“I think it’s a really cool dynamic we have on our team,” Isaacson said. “John and I have been curling since ’07 together with maybe a year or two off, and we’ve played a lot of games together and work well in the back end. We communicate well together and it’s great.”

After Isaacson stepped away from the sport a short time after the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Shuster formed his own rink in 2011 with Landsteiner, Zezel and Zach Jacobson. Shuster replaced Jacobson with his old teammate Isaacson two years ago and the formula for a winning team was discovered.

Shuster and Isaacson are happy Zezel took off a year of college at Bemidji State University (Bemidji, Minn.) and moved in with Shuster. Shuster has taken Landsteiner and Zezel under his guidance and the young curlers have really come into their own.

“I see those guys as equals,” Shuster said. “I didn’t see them as me being the teacher and them being the students. … Those guys have done everything I could have asked and more to learn their craft and to be the best.”

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis., who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past seven seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.