John Shuster, the face of American curling for the past four Winter Olympics — and all the good and bad those experiences have entailed — had a gold medal draped around his neck for the first time in his life on Saturday.
Moments before, he and his teammates had done what jubilant curlers do: They raised their brooms aloft in screaming excitement over an improbable victory. Yet at that moment, it was hard to believe how close his dream had come to crumbling apart.
Last Sunday, after a loss to Norway, the Americans were on the brink of elimination, again.
After that game, with family headed to a hotel and his wife’s encouraging words ringing in his head, Shuster, 35, found a grassy spot outside the venue, sat down and came to a realization.
“This is silly,” he told himself. “I’m getting my heart broken, I feel like, by this sport — and this is silly. Seriously, this is the Olympics.”
He slept soundly that night for the first time in a long time. His team did not lose again.
Five consecutive victories culminated Saturday night in something that has never happened before: an Olympic gold for the American curlers as they defeated Sweden, 10-7, before a flag-waving throng from back home. Shuster and his four teammates — Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo, who served as the team’s alternate — defeated Sweden, the top-ranked team in the world, so soundly that it conceded the match with several rocks to play in the 10th and final end.
The victory was as decisive as it was unexpected — to everyone, perhaps, but the Americans themselves, who described themselves as a group of scrappy regular guys from Middle America.
“This,” George said, “is a team that never gives up.”
The United States is not known as a curling powerhouse. Americans had never won a gold medal in the sport. For that reason and more, members of the team expressed hope that curling would become more than a cultural curiosity every four years. Perhaps the team’s success here can help.
“We want our sport to be loved by our country as much as we love it,” George, 35, said. “There’s a reason why we play it, and there’s a reason why we love it as much as we do.”
The win came with its share of thrills.
On Saturday, Shuster delivered the biggest shot in the history of American curling when he cleared two Swedish stones with his final rock of the eighth end to score 5 points.
“During the entire end, we could kind of feel it building,” Shuster said. “Their margin for error got incredibly small.”
Shuster had executed a perfect shot: a blend of cool-handed finesse and foolproof strategy. His team’s lead was suddenly insurmountable.
st End: Sweden Keeps the Hammer
Following warm-ups and the ceremonial blaring of bagpipes (curling is a Scottish game), both teams have hit the ice. There is a huge contingent of American fans in the building, and some of them may have had refreshments this afternoon. Anyway, amid cheers of “U-S-A” and “Shoooooo” for John Shuster, the American skip, the Swedish team took the hammer in the first end, owing to their top seed in the tournament, and preserved it for the second end with a blank, meaning nobody scored.
Oh, the hammer? Glad you asked. The hammer belongs to the team that gets to throw the last rock in an end, which is a huge tactical advantage. A team keeps the hammer until it scores.
As a special treat, we’ll be joined here by Devin Heroux of CBC Sports, a curling aficionado who will offer his incisive analysis. Devin suddenly has some spare time on his hands because Canada — well, Canada didn’t do so hot here. More on that later.
Devin Heroux: These two teams are playing in their first-ever gold medal game at the Olympics. We’ll see how USA and Sweden handle this new territory and the pressure of the moment.
2nd End: Sweden Makes Shuster Pay for Miss
We’re seeing some high-level curling from both sides. The Swedes packed the second end with exquisite shotmaking, and when John Shuster misfired on a double takeout with his last stone of the end, Nik Edin took advantage, scoring two for Sweden. Edin is widely regarded as the best skip in the world for a reason. Opponents pay for making mistakes against him.
Also, Ivanka Trump is here with a swarm of secret service personnel.
Devin Heroux: Edin learned how to curl by watching past Canadian curling championship games on VHS tapes while growing up in Sweden. In fact, his favorite curler to watch was Kevin Martin. He studied his strategy and learned the game by watching tapes over and over.
Edin moved his team to Canada two years ago for a year to practice in the curling-crazed nation and compete against the top teams there. His team is fully funded by the Swedish government to curl. This is their full-time job, to curl and win a gold medal at the Olympics.
3rd End: Americans Tie Match, 2-2
Tyler George, the American vice skip who wears really ratty sneakers, made two outstanding shots to set up Shuster, who came through in a huge way: a double takeout on his last throw to score two for the Americans and tie the match. More chants of “U-S-A!” are filling this place.
Throughout their run here, the members of the American team have given huge credit to Dr. Carly Anderson, who came on as U.S.A. Curling’s sports psychologist after their dismal showing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
4th End: Americans Steal a Point
“Yep! Yep! Whoa! Whoa!” This is the soundtrack being provided at the moment by the Americans, who are putting all sorts of pressure on the Swedes. After a measurement, the United States stole a point (Sweden had the hammer) to take their first lead of the match. This is heady stuff for John Shuster and his teammates. It sounds as if all of Duluth is here at Gangneung Curling Centre, and these people are screaming.