By Emily Giambalvo | Feb. 24, 2018, 4:33 a.m. (ET)

Tyler George, John Shuster, John Landsteiner and Matt Hamilton react after winning the gold medal in men's curling against Sweden at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on February 24, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. 

 

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – In the eighth end, John Shuster could feel the gold-medal curling game beginning to tilt in the favor of the Americans at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Saturday. The scoreboard said otherwise. The game was tied, but Shuster could see Sweden’s margin for error slowly decreasing.

With one throw left in the end, Shuster saw his shot. It wasn’t a difficult one, he said. All he needed to do was stay focused. Shuster’s stone slid into the house, knocked out two opposing stones and handed Team USA a huge, five-point margin to all but seal a gold medal, the first ever for the U.S. in this sport.

At that moment, the U.S. athletes knew they had won. Sweden’s skip, Niklas Edin, said he knew his team had lost. The arena erupted. The final two ends still gave Sweden a chance to turn the tide, but they were seemingly just a formality.

Shuster called it a “redemption story.” As part of the bronze-winning team in 2006, Shuster said hearing a different nation’s anthem while on the medal stand fueled him.

“Somebody else won gold,” Shuster said. “And that's when I knew for me, I wanted to go there.”

But while he made it to both the 2010 and 2014 Games, those times as skip of the team, the success didn’t continue for his teams. In 2010, the U.S. men finished 10th of 10 teams. In 2014, they finished ninth (again of 10). Finally, 12 years after that bronze, Shuster, John Landsteiner, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and alternate Joe Polo won Team USA’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in curling.

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That game-deciding stone carried more than just 42 pounds of granite. It carried the weight of a permanent spot in U.S. curling history and the relevance of this sport in America. During these Games, the U.S. curlers have noticed a buzz around their sport — one that might stick longer, thanks to the significance of their performance.

“I just really hope we can continue to keep the ball rolling and be ambassadors for the game as long as we can,” George said. “These shiny things around our neck will probably help us do that.”

Previously, Team USA’s only other curling medal – for either men or women – was that bronze earned in 2006. Both Shuster and Polo were on the team in Torino that was skipped by Pete Fenson. The other three curlers are first-time Olympic medalists.

A week ago, the chance of this team playing for a medal seemed improbable. The U.S. found itself toward the end of round-robin play with a 2-4 record and little hope of moving past that stage. After that sixth game, Shuster dropped his family off at the bus. He walked back toward the curling venue and sat down.

“I'm getting my heart broken, I feel like, by the sport, and this is silly,” Shuster remembers thinking. “Seriously, this is the Olympics.”

At that time, Team USA found itself in a situation where the only way it had a chance was if everything that followed panned out nearly perfectly.

And then it did.

The U.S. won every game after that. Twice in that span, the U.S. beat Canada, the three-time defending Olympic champion, and one of those wins came during the critical semifinal. The streak continued all the way until the U.S. men stood atop the medal stand. The game against Sweden marked Team USA’s fifth straight win.

Team Shuster earned its medal in front of a loud contingent of friends and family who made their presence known from the time the U.S. athletes began warmups. Some cheers were even created to go with the names of each individual athlete, ranging from “Ty, Ty, he’s our guy” for George to “Nice shot, Johnny” for Shuster. At times, Shuster’s 4-year-old son, Luke, led the cheering section.

“I can't tell you how proud I am of that little guy and his ability to rile the crowds up,” Shuster said.

Through the game, the U.S. athletes occasionally looked up to the stands in response to the support. Once, Hamilton acknowledged a fan who praised his mustache.

“They have a lot of fun,” Edin said of the Americans. “They take it easy."

That mindset has turned into a strength, Hamilton said. And maybe, that’s what is showing through TVs back in the States.

“We want our sport to be loved by our country as much as we love it,” George said. “There's a reason why we play it, and there's a reason why we love it as much as we do.”

Still, this team that made history was one that was born from defeat.

After finishing second from last at the Sochi Games, Shuster wasn’t selected to be part of the USA Curling High Performance Program. He formed his own team instead, one that embraced the mantra “Team Reject” for a few months. Since then, those men have climbed toward the top of their sport, placing in the top five at the last three world championships, including winning bronze in 2016 for the first men’s world medal in nine years.

“From the day that the 2014 Olympics came to an end, every single day was with this goal, was with this journey in mind,” Shuster said.

Now, they’ve risen all the way to the peak — the place where their national anthem plays and a place U.S. curling has never gone.

Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.

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