GANGNEUNG, South Korea – With skip John Shuster’s 4-year-old son in the stands leading the cheers, Team USA advanced to its first curling gold-medal game in history by defeating Canada 5-3 Thursday.
Team USA will play Sweden – which trounced Switzerland 9-3 in the other semifinal – on Saturday. The U.S. is assured of its best finish ever with a silver or a gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“We’ve always felt like we were right in there,” Shuster said, “and if we play our best game that our game is good enough to go against the best in the world and to be one of the best in the world.”
Shuster and his team of Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner defeated Canada, the three-time defending men’s curling gold medalists, for the second time at the Gangneung Curling Centre.
Team USA also beat Kevin Koe’s team 9-7 in the round-robin
No U.S. team – men or women – has advanced to the curling medal rounds since Pete Fenson’s rink won the bronze in 2006, with Shuster and 2018 alternate Joe Polo on the team.
“It was great standing on a podium,” Shuster said, “but hearing somebody else’s national anthem is something that fueled me to try to be here today.”
He had to go through a lot to make it happen.
When Shuster became a skip, he advanced to the next two Olympic Winter Games, but his teams had disappointing finishes of 10th in 2010 and ninth in 2014.
Following the Sochi Games, Shuster wasn’t even picked for the USA Curling High Performance Program. So he put together his own team.
Not making the high performance program, Hamilton said, “was definitely a little bit of a letdown at the time, but on that same note, I got the chance to play with a three-time Olympian and an Olympic medalist and he told me, ‘Hey, join our team of rejects and see what we can do.’”
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.
Yet as Olympic play began, the United States started the round-robin 2-4 and prospects appeared grim – except to Shuster and Co.
“Our team has had our backs against the wall plenty of times,” Shuster said, “But come on! It’s the Olympics! Who’s going to give up hope?
“This team is by far the most resilient group of guys.”
The Shuster rink rallied to take three must-win games and go into the semifinals as the No. 3 seed.“Personally it’s very meaningful,” Shuster said, “but knowing the work that we’ve done together and seeing my teammates be the best versions of themselves along with myself being the best version of myself is really, really, really exhilarating.”
Shuster said he felt no pressure as Team USA won its last four games.
“I have no idea what to tell you other than we’re just enjoying the moment,” Shuster said, “and I think I just decided that, ‘You know what? Fifty years from now when my kids are showing my grandkids – and maybe I’m dead and gone – video from the Olympics, I didn’t want all my videos to be me failing.’ And this is just changing things. We’re rewriting this thing.”
Curling officials and athletes believe having Team USA play in the gold-medal game will bring even more attention to the sport and contribute to its growth in the United States.
“It’s going to explode,” Landsteiner said. “It already is so much bigger than it was before we started playing here. We started 2-4 and we’re not oblivious to social media. We see people say, ‘Oh, here we go again. Another showing by Team Shuster.’ Now we’re here, so America, I hope they’re excited. I hope they’re watching.”
Hamilton, who also played mixed doubles at the Games with his sister, Becca, said curling in the United States “has been needing a sort of spark,” and this could be it.
“I think it’s going to be great for the sport, possibly a lot better for funding and it should help develop a lot more U.S. curlers,” he said. “It’s going to be a win-win for everybody.”
The crowd at the arena, where beer can be bought by the tray, was vocal throughout the game for both countries.
Young Luke Shuster could be heard hollering, “‘Who are we?” with the crowd responding “U-S-A, U-S-A!” His younger brother Logan, 2, was also there, probably too excited to fall asleep despite the late hour, his dad said.
“My kids and family and friends are absolutely the best cheerleaders,” Shuster said.
They started sitting together after the first game at the Olympic trials, forming their own team.
“When they took over that section of the stands and decided to be that team,” Shuster said, “it put us in a very familiar spot that we rallied around last time and it really energized us to come out here and enjoy the moment and to do what we did tonight.”
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They were also inspired by watching the U.S. women’s ice hockey team defeat Canada for the gold medal.
Shuster is friends with some of the veterans on the team who he met at previous Games.
Watching them “get it done,” he said, “really just showed us that anything is possible.”
Team USA also got some support from Mr. T, who was following the team back home. “Alright US Men’s curling team it’s all up to you now. I’ll be watching and cheering you guys on. Play hard but play smart! Go USA! #curlingiscoolfool #TeamUSA” he tweeted.
Shuster’s team came through.
Canada took a 1-0 lead after the second end, then Team USA tied it up. Canada pulled ahead 2-1 after the fourth. Shuster delivered a risky shot that worked out to secure one point for the U.S. and tie it again.
“I don’t remember us really being in trouble at any point,” George said, “and we really stressed, ‘Let’s be careful without the hammer. Let’s not give these guys a big end and when we get the hammer, we’re going after them tooth and nail.’
“You saw how difficult it is to put points up on those guys. You’ve got to bleed points out of them.”
The sixth and seventh ends were blanked, with Canada keeping the hammer. Team USA had a key steal in the eighth end to score two points and take a 4-2 advantage into the final two ends.
“When you’re playing the best team in the world,” George said, “you’ve just got to keep beating them down and beating them down until somebody flinches and this time it wasn’t us.”
Canada made it 4-3 after nine, then Shuster closed it out.
The atmosphere was tense as Shuster delivered the last stone in the 10th end. He had a perfect hit-and-stick for one.
How many times has he made the same shot?
“I don’t know – 1,000?” Shuster said. “This is one of the first times I’ve had that shot sitting in my hand where I was like, ‘This looks like a practice shot that I throw in practice and in league and when I’m with my friends and there’s nobody around. Let’s enjoy this. Made it.”
Hamilton had no doubt it was right on the money.
“When he let it go, I knew we were probably going on to the gold-medal game,” said Hamilton, who was thinking about celebrating with an Oreo McFlurry at the Olympic Village. “It was a really crazy feeling.”
Hamilton said before their winning stretch began, he and his teammates told Shuster they had a faith in him, "and he knows that when we say that, we really believe it.
“He did what he had to do to bounce back and now we’re rolling. Look out, Sweden!”
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