When John Shuster wasn’t invited to join the USA Curling High Performance Program in 2014 after competing in his third straight Olympic Winter Games, did he give up?
“I’ll never forget the day that I got the email that said, ‘Thanks for trying out and coming to our combine, but you’re not selected,’” Shuster said. “And then the thing that really fueled me was the press release that said, ‘We selected the 10 athletes that we think give us our best chance for international curling success.’”
And Shuster, in the judges’ minds, was not worthy of the national team.
“Being the skip of the last two Olympic teams and one of our top players in the country, it was like, ‘All right, well, I guess it’s time to dig deep and really prove that this is not the case,’” he said.
First Shuster needed a new team. One of his players retired after the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, another was cut from the combine and the fourth qualified for the high performance program, meaning USA Curling would compose the teams.
Shuster looked at who else was left out in the cold. He saw plenty of talent.
Three of the last four guys cut from the combine are now members of Team Shuster, which will be one of five men’s teams competing at the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling in Omaha, Nebraska, starting Saturday.
Shuster is the reigning national champion, has never lost an Olympic trials and is trying for an American-record fourth Olympic men's curling team. He was lead and vice skip on Pete Fenson’s rink in 2006, which won Team USA’s only Olympic curling medal to date, a bronze. Then Shuster became a skip at the senior level – “It’s one of those things where I kind of always knew that’s where I wanted to be,” he said – and he led the American teams that placed 10th in 2010 and ninth in 2014.
As the skip, Shuster is the leader and plots strategy. “I hold the broom and I tell the guys how hard to throw the rock and put the broom down to give them something to aim at.”
When the rock is in motion, he communicates how he hard he wants his teammates to sweep.
“The skip kind of controls the environment out there and also usually delivers the last two stones of the end,” Shuster said. “The points count after the last stone of the end stops. You’re kind of the last line of defense or the final line of offense.”
So does that mean he’s the best man on the team?
But Shuster admitted, “If a skip has a bad day, you generally don’t win. So you maybe have to be the most consistent, but I wouldn’t say that necessarily the skips are even the best players on the team all the time.”
Matt Hamilton said he wasn’t surprised to see Shuster passed over at the combine, which assessed athletes on technical, tactical, physical and mental skills both on and off the ice.
“His last two Olympic showings, he wasn’t great,” Hamilton said. “So I wasn’t sure if they were maybe trying to get some new blood in there. I think it was a motivator. I think they insinuated that maybe we give some other people a chance in this program and not John.”
In curling, the “house” is the area within the concentric circles at each end of the sheet. If Shuster couldn’t go in the front door, he’d figure out a way to go in the back.
Hamilton was one of his first calls, beating another skip to the punch by 30 minutes.
“I was like, ‘Hey man, obviously you have three team members that now are on the national team and I’ve got no team members,” said Shuster. “How bad do you want this? His was an angry fire. Mine wasn’t so much that.”
While Hamilton sent an email to the head of the high performance program saying he respected his decision, but looked “forward to proving him wrong,” Shuster quietly began changing his appearance.
Although he still felt that he was “the best I’d ever been” on the curling sheet, Shuster thought maybe he needed to look the part.
He’s now 30 pounds lighter than he was in 2010 and 2014, a change that’s evident in his new photos.
“I’m the best shape I’ve ever been in my life,” Shuster said. “That was one of the knocks on me for my entire career. I think as the skip it doesn’t really matter because you don’t have that much physical stuff going on, but definitely making that change I travel way better, jet lag doesn’t affect me nearly as much and just generally I’m in a better place to be the best I can be.”
He decided take on a regimen every bit as demanding as the national team’s.
“I said, ‘They are going to be in the gym every day and I’m going to be in the gym every day,’” Shuster said.
He lost his first 15 pounds by working out and cutting back on his food intake, followed by another quick 5-pound drop. This past summer, Shuster, 35, adopted an even more aggressive protein-pacing program and shed 15 more pounds. Of course, since Shuster has also put on muscle, he’s even leaner than a 30-pound weight loss suggests.
“John has killed it since that (2014) trial,” Hamilton said.
Tyler George was another recruit for the new Shuster rink. George didn’t try out at the combine because, Shuster said, “He’s one of the traditionalists of curling where you should be picking your own teammates for specific reasons, so he’s like, ‘I’m not going to go and subject myself to somebody else telling me who I’m playing with.’”
The fourth member of the Shuster rink was a young player struggling to make the transition out of juniors. Within two or three months he was replaced by John Landsteiner, the other 2014 Olympian on Shuster’s team who was cut at the combine. Landsteiner, who has a taxing job as an engineer/project manager, had not been sure he wanted to continue curling when he went to the combine, which Shuster believes the staff picked up on.
But after watching line scores from afar, Landsteiner realized he wanted back in.
Team Shuster swept away all doubters, winning the 2015 national championship and placing fifth at worlds that year. Shuster was named the USA Curling Male Athlete of the Year for 2015, less than a year after that fateful email.
At the next combine, all four team members were accepted into the High Performance Program on their terms – as a team.
“We said, ‘This feels like the beginning of something and you can have us or not have us,’” Shuster said. “When they took us in, there was zero tension. We were accepted back in.”
In 2016, Team Shuster won the bronze medal at worlds for the first U.S. men’s curling medal since 2007. In 2017, Shuster skipped the team that finished fourth, qualifying the United States for PyeongChang 2018.
After starting this season in August, Team Shuster (which also includes alternate Joe Polo, a member of the bronze-medal-winning 2006 Olympic team) has had three playoff showings in World Curling Tour events to rank No. 18 in the world. Heath McCormick’s team is ranked No. 19 and will be a top rival at the trials.
But Shuster is confident his team will advance to represent the United States at the Winter Games and perhaps bring home the country's first curling medal in 12 years and his second.
“Our team has made it to the medal round of worlds the last two years so I think we know that we’re right in there and what we have to do,” Shuster said. “But at the same time, there’s a ton of parity in curling right now and the Olympics are going to be an absolute grind.”
The team that goes to PyeongChang will have a built-in audience of U.S. fans who are fall under curling’s spell during the Winter Games, watching for hours at a time.
Shuster thinks the popularity of the sport is enhanced by what the athletes wear – no, not the colorful Norwegian pants, but rather microphones.
“We’re mic’ed up for an entire game,” he said. “People are kind of being mesmerized by the game plan, what’s going on, and I think they feel like they know you on a more personal level because they get to hear you communicating with your teammates.”
Does he think these once-every-four-years curling aficionados understand the strategy?
“Heck no!” said Shuster.
But he said that’s part of the draw. “A husband and wife can be sitting on the couch after dinner and curling is on or you can be watching in a bar with a couple of friends. And one of them will be like, ‘I think they’re going to do this because of this.” It’s a pretty good conversation piece especially when they don’t exactly have a perfect clue of what’s going on.”
Even after decades in the sport, Shuster still feels like he’s getting better at throwing the rock, boasting, “I’ve thrown probably more rocks than anybody in our country over the last 20 years.”
How does he figure that? “Because I know how much everybody practices in our country,” said Shuster, who lives in Superior, Wisconsin, and visits curling clubs for fun when her travels. “I throw 40 or 50 daily throughout the course of a curling session, and curling season’s six months long, so it’s tens of thousands.”
Off the curling sheet, he works at DICK’S Sporting Goods as part of their Contenders program.
“No, we don’t sell curling equipment,” Shuster said. “I get that question a lot.”
He and his wife Sara, a pharmacist, have two sons, Luke, 4, and Logan, 2.
“My 2-year-old, his favorite thing to do is see Daddy curling and start going ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’” Shuster said. “He doesn’t say hardly any words, but he knows how to cheer U-S-A.”
And his father hopes to give him plenty to cheer about.