John Shuster, Chris Plys, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner celebrate at the US Olympic Team Trials-Curling on Nov. 21, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska.
BEIJING — If you’re wondering how prominent a place curling occupies today in the American sports scene, you need look no further than the front of the parade of U.S. athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
There was Team USA’s male flag bearer, 2018 Olympic gold medalist John Shuster, the first curler to lead the United States into an Opening Ceremony. And while Shuster got the honor, he was flanked by the rest of the U.S. curling contingent as they soaked up the moment together. Curling is cool now, and that’s due in no small part to Shuster, the only U.S. curler with two Olympic medals including Team USA's first-ever gold in 2018.
“We dream of this as athletes — 2018 was the sporting pinnacle of my career,” Shuster said. “I couldn’t have picked better teammates to do that with, and it’s pretty awesome that three of the four of us get a chance to come back here and try to defend that Olympic gold.”
Teammate Tyler George opted to retire at the top, now working in broadcasting. In comes Chris Plys at third to join lead John Landsteiner and second Matt Hamilton (and alternate Colin Hufman) on Team Shuster. Plys is new to the team but not new to the Olympics, having been an alternate on Shuster’s 2010 team, as well as competing with Vicky Persinger in this year’s mixed doubles tournament. He, Shuster and Landsteiner all also hail from Northern Minnesota, where curling has long enjoyed a popularity that’s only recently developed in the rest of the country. Hamilton comes from neighboring Wisconsin, a curling hotbed in its own right.
Team Shuster became celebrities following their gold-medal triumph, not only in their native Upper Midwest but around the country. They appeared everywhere from “The Tonight Show” to the White House. Curlers know they play a niche sport; helping to grow it is a responsibility they feel and if they can do that by winning, then even better.
“I think with success you have fun,” said Hamilton. “Obviously winning is fun and you’re able to loosen up and have a good time so us being able to go out and win the gold last time, people were really able to see this positive, fun side of us and being just relatable guys makes it kind of appealing to watch and be a part of. It’s been cool to watch it grow … It’s kind of fun to think that I’m forging the way for maybe some future gold medalists.”
The team’s heroics four years ago mean even more eyes will be on them in Beijing. And they’ll be hoping for another gold. But while there may be a new level of expectations as defending champions, it’s mostly business as usual for the team.
“I think (the Games) feel a little bit different, but for myself, being my fifth Games I’ve always had high expectations coming in of teams coming here and performing,” Shuster said. “But I think we have since the last Olympics had some validation of how well our team can come out and perform with our performance last year at the world championships.”
Shuster and Co. went 10-3 in the round robin at the 2021 world championships, securing the third seed in the playoffs before suffering an upset loss to Switzerland. Then in November they had to survive a “tough, tough test,” in Shuster’s words, at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Team Shuster was the best team in the round robin, but then opened the best-of-three final series with a loss. For the second trials in a row, Shuster was able to rally back and win two straight to secure another Olympic berth.
Winning gold again will not be easy. Canada is the only team to win consecutive gold medals in men’s curling, winning three in a row from 2006 to 2014. And no team in the world is playing as well as Sweden, the reigning world champions and No. 1 team in the world. Team Shuster is solidly in that mix, however, at No. 4. The U.S. opens round robin play with the team from the Russian Olympic Committee Wednesday evening in Beijing.
On one hand, Shuster said, the team feels less pressure than before since it now knows it has what it takes to win a gold medal. But the standard is still the same. The team wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t going for gold.
“(PyeongChang) was my first Olympics, and you can’t write it any better than that,” Hamilton said. “So since then, I kinda had like a moment where I had to decide, like, ‘Is that good? Are you content with the one medal and the one Olympics and calling it a day?’ I just realized I was still hungry and love competing.”