When the U.S. men’s curling team beat Sweden and won Olympic gold nearly a year ago in Pyeongchang, Korea, just about everyone in Duluth, Minn. – halfway around the world – was watching.
“It was unbelievable,” James Price said. The Duluth native said he wore his hometown pride that day, watching the matches from his home in Skagway, Alaska. “It was the only reason I would stay up and watch the Olympics. Everyone knows [John] Shuster around here. You see him at the [Duluth Curling] club. That’s the reason you watch,” Price, a one-time curler, himself, said.
Shuster, a 36-year-old father of two, is the team’s skip, or lead tactician. The team is also known as “Team Shuster,” and overcame disappointing early-round losses in Pyeongchang to eventually charge back and become the first American men’s curling team to bring home gold.
“Everyone asks me ‘what were you thinking’,”Shuster said. He’s referring to the moment when he made the last shot for Team USA, where he scored five points and sealed the win. Shuster said when he looked down the sheet of ice, the configuration of the stones or rocks looked familiar.
“I sat in the hat [feet in the push-off position] in the biggest shot of my life. And I thought back to a Tuesday morning one-on-one game with a retired guy in my curling club.”
He nailed it. And life hasn’t quite been the same since. There was the barrage of fans that greeted the team at the Duluth airport following their return from the Olympics; there have been endless media requests, corporate and charity appearances and autograph signings; and even a movie rights deal. The Korean silk neck ribbon attached to his medal is faded with wear and handling. For Shuster, his Olympic performance has now also allowed him to breathe.
“For me, winning a gold was almost a pressure relief. I thought I always needed a validation, for taking this career path, and I got it. So now I have it. It took the pressure off and I can just enjoy being on the ice,” he said recently, before one of his solo practices at the curling club.
Still, Shuster said becoming a professional curling athlete has not translated into the type of sponsorship and income that athletes in other sports enjoy. Shuster, a stay-at-home dad, would like to see the sport grow in popularity, which would also boost potential earnings and incentivize more people to train and consider the sport as a career.
Along with his teammates, John Landsteiner, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and Joe Polo, the team made curling look effortless. And many say their Olympic play ignited an interest for the sport that has taken curling to newfound popularity around the nation. Part of the team’s appeal, Landsteiner said, is their “every man” looks. They are not the stereotypical athlete. But Olympic medalists, they are.
“I’d like to see it grow across the country,” Landsteiner, 28, said. “I’d like to see people become more competitive. I’d like to see the U.S. become more of a powerhouse.”