After another poor efforts sliding a stone down the Vancouver Olympic Centre ice sheet, John Shuster uttered a phrase that summed up his performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics and instantly ensured his name would go viral among social media junkies:
“I hate this stupid game.”
It was an honest assessment of how the U.S. men’s skip felt about curling at the moment, but not how he feels about the sport overall.
“I murmured, ‘I hate this stupid game’ tongue-and-cheek in our last game as we were saying ‘See ya later’ to the Olympics,” Shuster recalled a day before leaving Duluth for Europe. “At the same time, if you never had those feelings about your sport, you’re probably not very competitive.”
A 2-7 finish, which included Shuster being benched after numerous missed throws, made the curling team one of the laughingstocks of the 2010 Games.
The U.S. had the lead and the hammer (final throw) against eventual bronze medalist Switzerland and had the hammer in an extra end against Norway, losing each time.
“Any competitive curler expects to win those games,” Shuster said. “When those didn’t go our way, it all snowballed really fast.”
That was then. This is now.
Shuster, a Chisholm native who great up playing basketball in Bob McDonald’s Saturday morning youth program and a 2007 UMD alumnus, is back competing in his third Olympics and second as U.S. skip. After a marvelous run through the U.S. Trials, which featured beating his 2006 Olympic teammate Pete Fenson is the finals, and storming from behind numerous times to earn one of the two automatic berths at an Olympic qualifier in Germany, the Duluth Curling Club’s most famous member is headed to Sochi, Russia with a change to add to the bronze medal he won in Turin, Italy.
He’ll go there, not with thoughts of “redemption” or “avenging his pain” as recent newspaper headlines indicate, but with the same goals he’s always had.
“You have to look past Vancouver and ask, “What am I really trying to accomplish in the sport of curling?'” Shuster asked rhetorically. “It’s trying to be the best in the world and win a gold medal at a World Championships and in the Olympics and to advance the sport I love so much on a local, regional, national level. And we have the ability to do that in these big events.”
The 31-year-old Shuster freely admits disappointment over this performance in British Columbia, even sitting on the balcony of his Olympic Village apartment pondering where to go from there.
“It was one of those times when you look at the last four years and all the sacrifices that you and your family make along the way, and that was the agony I was going through,” he said. “You had to look back and ask yourself if this is worth all the time and effort that you put into it.”
After talking to then-fiancee Sara Marshall and his parents — all of whom gave positive feedback — Shuster decided the sport was in his blood.
“Curling is what I do and what I’ve always done,” he said. “You have to get back on the horse…and it didn’t take too long.”
And unlike some athletes who may seek out a sports psychologist to deal with failure, Shuster had a more practical approach. The Shusters were married in the summer of 2010 and had their first child last year. John, who formerly tended bat at the curling club, left his job as Pickwick Restaurant manager to become a stay-at-home dad, which Sara works as a pharmacist. Luke turned 9 months old on the first day of the curling competition, while staying at the Black Sea resort town.
“Marriage and family have allowed me to be a little less critical of myself and calmed me down on the ice,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing that;s helped me since the last Olympics.”
“Curling is something I do and am passionate about, but it’s not the end-all to me anymore. The end-all is coming home and being a dad and a husband.”
SHUSTER FORMS A NEW TEAM
Instead of captaining his own team after Vancouver, Shuster joined Craig Brown’s rink and played the third position for a season (Brown of Madison is this year’s Olympic alternate).
He then formed his own team again, recruiting Zach Jacobson from North Dakota, Bemidji State student Jared Zezel of Hibbing, and Minnesota Duluth student John Landsteiner of Mapleton, Minn. The foursome finished third at the 2012 U.S. Championships, after which Jacobson pulled out of the team to tend to his farm.
Shuster didn’t have to look far for a replacement. Jeff Isaacson, a 2010 Olympic teammate and a former roommate of Shuster’s, was the obvious choice. Yet Shuster needed to find something enticing enough to lure back Isaacson, a science teacher at Gilbert Junior High School.
A pink 1993 Geo Prizm, with about 200,000 miles and lots of rust on it, sealed the deal.
“He needed a running car and my parents were going to junk and old Geo Prizm,” Shuster said. I told Jeff, ‘”They are going to junk it so you can just drive it until it’s dead’. That was the signing bonus.”
Isaacson drove the vehicle to Green Bay for a tournament and ended up putting 10,000 miles on it before it became scrap metal.
“I took it down here (to the Duluth Curling Club) to practice and blew a tire on it and had to put the donut on it,” Isaacson recalled.
As the team’s vice-skip, the 30-year-old Isaacson lends vital experience.
“They dragged me back into it a couple of years ago, and I’m glad they did,” he said.
Isaacson said a retired science teacher has filled in for him at the middle school during his numerous absences. The other members of the team have taken various approaches to taking time off.
Zezel, 22, who is just a semester shy of graduating from Bemidji State, took the fall off to train for the Trials. When the quartet clinked their Olympic berth, he was quick to take another semester off.
“I was a pretty happy kid when I clicked on the cancel registration on my school’s email,” he said. “It’s been a nice time off this year.”
Landsteiner, 23, graduated from UMD (2013) and works as a civil engineer at Lake Superior Consulting in Duluth. He;s taking plenty of unpaid time off from his new job, but says his employers understand.
“Everybody ins the office is excited,” he said.
Team USA is not a medal favorite, according to most experts. Canadian teams have won gold in the past two Olympics and Brad Jacobs will try to make ti a trifecta. Niklas Edin’s Swedish rink is strong and the brashly clothed Norwegian squad of Thomas Ullsurd will try to make more than just a fashion statement.
But as Shuster’s team showed at the Olympic Trials in Fargo, N.D., at the clinching-tournament in Germany and again at a showdown in Las Vegas two weeks ago, it could be in the running for the country’s second curling medal ever.
“They’re focused and prepared and practicing well,” U.S. coach Tim Muller of Hibbing said. “We’ve seen a lot of these teams during the course of the season. I think they are all pretty close in the pack. It’s going to come down more to rocks, ice conditions, that kind of stuff.”
No matter the eventual outcome, Shuster says he enjoys the journey as much as anything. He’s excited to show what the current foursome can accomplish in Sochi.
“From the time John and Jared began curling with us, we’ve progressively gotten better and better,” he said. “We’ve improved to the point where we thought we had a good chance going into the Olympic Trials, and we won there. We felt we had a good chance going into Germany, and we came out of there and made the Olympics. And now we feel pretty good going to Sochi.”
Article written by Rick Weegman with the Duluth News Tribune / Photos by Steve Kuchera with the Duluth News Tribune