(Front Row L-R) John Landsteiner, Matt Hamilton, Chris Plys and John Shuster and coach Sean Beighton (back) pose after winning U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Curling on Nov. 21, 2021 in Omaha, Neb.
OMAHA, Neb. — Bad news for the rest of the men’s curling field at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022: The champs are back.
With his fifth consecutive title at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling, John Shuster and his team will get the chance to defend their historic gold medal won four years ago in PyeongChang. Team Shuster defeated Team Dropkin two games to one, taking Sunday night’s winner-take-all Game 3 by a score of 6-3 at Baxter Arena. It took another comeback, just as it did four years ago on the same ice, for Shuster and Chris Plys, Matt Hamilton, and John Landsteiner to rally after losing the first game to book a place at the Games.
“It’s definitely going to be special to get a chance to go back and try to see what we can do and see if we can’t get another gold,” Shuster said. “Obviously, I’m sure now that we’re going back there’s going to be maybe a little bit of a target that other countries are going to put on us. As hard as Team Dropkin pushed us at the end of this week, if we can come out and play with that type of game planning, that type of intensity when we’re going to be in Beijing, I really think that we’re going to do well.”
Dropkin did push Shuster hard as the only team to truly test the reigning champions. Team Shuster lost its only game of round robin play to Dropkin, then were overwhelmed in seven ends in the first game of the finals series. But things changed in Game 2 as Shuster pulled away for the win in a very tight, intense game with fine margins. Shuster was proud of the way his team battled through in that tough situation.
“When your back’s against the wall, that’s where your character really shows and the character of everybody on our team,” Shuster said. “We’re all fighters. I think we've proven that plenty of times. I think yesterday as we got to the second half of that game and we were trailing and they had the hammer, that would have been a very, very easy time for a team to be like, well it was a good run, we gave it a good effort. And that wasn’t what we did, our backs were truly against the wall and we made it happen and got that win yesterday.”
It was more of the same in Game 3 as the first two ends were blanked before the teams traded singles. The turning point of the match came in the sixth end, when a Korey Dropkin miss opened the door for a draw for two for Shuster. In a close game, the two points were a major momentum shift.
“Team Shuster was sharper than us,” Dropkin said. “We had some good exchanges in the first half, we applied some pressure at some good times, the big difference was that sixth end, not making that last draw and giving them a draw for two. From there we weren’t able to respond in seven and they kind of took the game away from there. It’s difficult, but it is what it is, it’s sports.”
Dropkin fell on the losing side to Shuster for the second trials in a row, but with a mostly different team from the one four years ago. The reigning national champions performed well but Dropkin felt their execution let them down in the end.
“We’re a younger team, and we’re going to be back,” Dropkin said. “So getting games under the spotlight like these games, especially in the final, in front of the crowd, under the lights, on TV, really just getting those reps in, it’s good experience for us. It’s going to help us move forward and improve and be better next time.”
Shuster said going into the finals series that the teams know each other well being from the Duluth, Minnesota, area and practice alongside each other often. Dropkin’s team even had scrimmaged against Shuster’s to help prepare them for the most recent world championships, Shuster said. Shuster feels like the competition they provided in Omaha was among the most difficult he’s faced out of the five Olympic trials wins he’s been a part of.
“They were all very, very difficult,” Shuster said. “I’ve skipped four of those five Olympics, and I don’t know that I’ve ever thought more about what we needed to do to win. I’ve never had to think that much about that.”
Team Shuster will now attempt to do something that only Canada has done before in men’s curling: Win consecutive Olympic gold medals. Shuster, Hamilton and Landsteiner were on the ice in PyeongChang four years ago, but Plys is a newcomer to the team. He’s not a newcomer to the Games, however, as he was an alternate on Shuster’s team at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Those long-term bonds and friendships formed within the team can only help on the ice, Shuster said.
“This team, I mean the 2018 team we had an unbelievable bond and friendship and obviously three of the four of us are the same. The relationships you develop with curling teams over time, and I’ve been with John Landsteiner now for over a decade and Matt for eight years and Chris feels like he’s played with us for a decade. The more you play with people, the closer you become.
“This entire week when we weren’t at the rink, we weren’t out around town or whatever, we were in our Airbnb and hanging out together and enjoying each other’s company as much as we do with anybody else and we’ve just become such great friends, almost brothers.”