Team USA curler Matt Hamilton said even before the Olympics began that he thought the questions surrounding skip John Shuster were nonsense.
In Hamilton’s mind, even before leaving for PyeongChang, he knew this Olympics would be different than the last two for his skip.
“This is a new team and I can’t speak for John but I think this is one of the highest levels of confidence he’ll have going into an Olympics,” Hamilton said late last year. “As a skip with a team like our team that he’s had for so long and just believes in, he knows that we believe in him and he believes in us and it makes for a healthy atmosphere to play your best.”
The last two Olympics for Team USA were less than stellar, to put it lightly. After winning bronze in 2006, the only U.S. Olympic medal ever in curling, the next two Games saw the U.S. finish at or near the bottom of the standings each time.
The disappointments of 2010 and 2014 forced USA Curling to make some changes so the sport could keep pace with other curling crazed countries like Sweden and Canada. In 2014 they created the high performance program to try to change the culture of U.S. curling from simply self-coached teams players put together themselves to teams formed by the HPP, with the addition of funding for coaches, trainers and even sports psychologists.
However, Shuster’s team, the current squad playing together as Team USA, was not formed by HPP. Shuster handpicked Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner himself in 2014. Shuster and George were friends from curling back when they were young, both hailing from Duluth, Minnesota.
Hamilton said that the four were actually “rejects” of the program when it was first formed, after initially not getting invited.
“When he called me I was like, ‘so you’re calling the rejects’ because we were rejected from the club basically,” Hamilton said of how Shuster formed the team. “So that was a little joke, it was one of the first things he said, ‘hey, do you want to join my reject team.’ After we had a great season, immediate chemistry, we won the national championship and we got fifth losing a tiebreaker in our first worlds together and the US Curling Association knew they couldn’t’ let us not be in the program for another year so they asked us right away the next season, ‘Hey, you guys did great and we did kind of screw up so we’d love for you to join our team and be a part of the high performance group.’
“I still like to bring it up from time to time. We’re at a point now where we know what we’re capable of and how good we are… we’re on to the Olympics. We’re no longer thinking ‘hey we’re a reject team’ we’re thinking ‘hey we’re the team.’ It doesn’t really cross the mind anymore. We felt like we’ve proven ourselves already.”
Unlike in past Olympics when teams were sort of thrown together just before the Trials, Shuster’s team has now been together going on four years, which he said is about middle of the pack for other teams around the world, but is a long time in terms of other teams in the U.S.
Even though Shuster has struggled as skip in the Olympics, his teammates continue to have full faith in him. Not just to lead the team this Olympic go-round, but to also just make everyone else better curlers. While others may have lost confidence in Shuster, his teammates never did.
“John is obviously a superstar curler and one of the best in the U.S. for a long time,” Hamilton said. “I was always on the cusp of being really good and I was just hoping that the input he’s got and the knowledge he has and the patience he has for this team will rub off on me and take me to the next level and it’s really helped a lot. Again, it really comes down to believing in each other and believing that he knows when he calls a shot for me that I’m going to make it.”
"When he's making everything and walking around like he owns the sheet, it's fun to watch,” George said following Monday’s win over Canada. "You get a skip who plays like that, the rest of us can go and throw left-handed if you want, and (you're probably) still going to win the game."
Preparations for these games were much different than in years past, with a much larger emphasis on conditioning and fitness. Shuster himself said he dropped 35 point since Sochi, and can tell a big difference on the ice.
But would the changes translate to wins? PyeongChang looked like it could be starting the same way for the Americans as the last two Games. They went 2-4 in their first matches of round robin play, in danger of being eliminated from semifinal contention early again.
But something happened in their seventh game of play.
Facing Canada, the three-time defending gold medalists and class of the curling world, Shuster’s team proved that this year was definitely different than Olympics past. They trailed just one time in 11 ends of play, and finished the game with an emphatic game winning takeout by Shuster for two points and a 9-7 victory.
Shuster couldn’t contain his emotions on the ice, kicking his leg into the air and letting out a scream. He also couldn’t contain his emotions off the ice, breaking down into tears while being interviewed by reporters.
“The Olympics has been so tough for me,” he told reporters while fighting back tears after the game. “This is my story. My story isn’t what’s been happening so far.”
“It’s good emotions. John, he’s been through a lot the last few Olympics, that’s no secret,” George added. “But there’s a reason we play with him and why we stick with him, because what you saw today is what we know he is. To come out when everything is going against you against the best in the world and come out and play the way we did today, the way he did, there’s no other testament to his character than that.”
It was the perfect shot, and the perfect jumpstart the U.S. needed. It began a three game winning streak to finish round robin play, just like they knew they needed to do to move on.
Now they’re in the semifinals, as the No. 3 seed taking on No. 2. Canada again. While it may not be a rivalry of sorts (Shuster said he’s actually very good friends with Canadian skip Kevin Koe and three of the members of Team USA and two others from Canada are all in a fantasy football league together), George said it is something of a big-brother, little-brother game. The U.S. may have bested Canada three days ago, but they’re still the defending gold medalists and 2017 World Champions.
But George said that if you’re going to be the best curling team, you know from the time you’re young you’re going to have to go through Canada to get there.
So Thursday’s game is something they’ve been preparing for for a long time.
“This is what you dream about as a teenager,” George said. “When you're out practicing, throwing rocks. If you want to play anybody at the Olympics with medals on the line, it's Canada. To actually get to a game like that, man, it's amazing.”
The U.S. men will take on Canada in the men's curling semifinal Thursday morning at 6 a.m. EST. The winner will move on to the Gold Medal Game, while the loser will play for bronze.