OMAHA, Neb. – After dropping the first game in the best-of-three playoff series at the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials to Team Heath McCormick, three-time Olympian John Shuster came to a conclusion.
“I laid in bed after the first game that we lost and thought, ‘This is what I’m choosing to do with my life, to dedicate my life to curling,’” Shuster said. “I don’t have a full-time job. Curling, essentially, is my career. So to go down without a fight in that circumstance is just something that I would never think about doing. My family – my wife, my mom, my dad, all my family and friends, put so much in to make this possible, to travel as much as we travel. And I just have to think about that at times like that. This is more than just about me and these five guys.”
Shuster and his team of John Landsteiner, Tyler George and Matt Hamilton returned to the ice with a vengeance the following night, defeating Team McCormick 9-4. After forcing a third game and with the teams on an even playing field, Shuster was back in the driver’s seat; he rode that momentum to a 7-5 win on Saturday to take the series, 2-1, and his team earned a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
For Shuster, the win makes history, as he becomes the first American men’s curler to make a fourth Olympic team.
“Pinch me! Pinch me,” Shuster said. “This team is a special team. I really have no other words. I’m just entirely proud of the way they handled themselves.”
Of Shuster’s teammates, only lead Landsteiner has Olympic experience, finishing eighth with Shuster at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Vice skip George and second Hamilton will be making their Olympic debuts. They are among the first members of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, joining biathletes Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee, who qualified in February, and the four members of Team Roth -- Nina Roth, Tabitha Peterson, Aileen Geving and Becca Hamilton -- who qualified earlier in the day.
Becca Hamilton is the younger sister of Team Shuster's Matt Hamilton, but the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 won’t just be a family affair for the Hamiltons.
Following the win, George shared an emotional hug with his father, Tom.
“That’s a tough moment for me ‘cause dad’s not a very emotional guy, but he was bawling just as much as I was,” George said. “He’s been holding me after the losses with tears streaming down my face the same way, so to do that with him and share that moment with him and my family, I can’t describe it. All I wanted to do was cry in his arms, and it’s for the right reasons for once. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Shuster was seen celebrating on the ice with his wife and kids. His sons are 2 and 4 years old, and their dad is excited for them to have their first Olympic experience.
“Luke was 8 months old when we were over there in Russia, but he knows now, and this’ll be something that, should they come over there, something to remember for probably the rest of his life,” Shuster said.
Team Shuster had a sizeable – and vibrantly loud – cheering section throughout the playoff series, as friends and family banded together to create signs and cheers to help keep the team motivated.
“When you feel your family and friends with you, it always gives you that little extra edge out on the ice,” Shuster said.
The cheering section had much to cheer about right off the bat in game three, as Shuster opened the game with a huge three-spot in the first end. McCormick scored a massive two-stone takeout in the second end to claw back with a deuce. Shuster chipped in another point to add to his lead in the third, while McCormick did the same to reduce the lead again in the fourth.
“Even [if we got] two in the first end, we knew that was going to put an incredible amount of pressure on those guys,” Shuster said. “Heath made an incredible shot to end the second end and get his two points. And then it was pretty similar to the things you saw the past two days, with either team not budging an inch and a lot of singles and an incredibly tightly-played game.”
Shuster was forced to just one in the fifth, nailing his last shot while facing five McCormick stones in the house to make the score 5-3. McCormick blanked the sixth to retain the hammer and scored one in the seventh. Shuster missed an opportunity for a huge end in the eighth and added just one to stretch the lead to 6-4.
McCormick added a point in the ninth and made a valiant effort in the 10th, but it was Shuster’s hammer and Shuster’s game. He made his final shot – barely keeping it close enough to the button – to add some cushion and take the game, 7-5.
“We came here knowing that we were very capable of doing this,” McCormick said. “We had the right attitude all week, we stayed positive, fought back a couple times when we needed to, and just unfortunately didn’t get it done.”
Shuster, as he nearly always does, did get it done. The squad that has finished in the top five at the last three world championships, winning bronze in 2016, will head to PyeongChang to represent Team USA. Shuster was part of the Pete Fenson rink in 2006 that won the United States its first Olympic curling medal, a bronze, and he is hoping for more history in Korea.
“I think we’re gonna go in confident,” George said. “We’ve beaten a couple of the last world champions that’ll be there. I honestly think this was the biggest hurdle with regard to the pressure of getting there.
“It was our spot. We just had to claim it.”