GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Sara Shuster holds her 2-year-old son in one arm and half of her husband’s cheering section in the other.
One after another, they approach her for a hug. She keeps wiping tears from her eyes, the moment almost too surreal to believe. This can’t be real. No way, this is a Hollywood script.
“Oh my gosh,” she says.
Eight years ago, keyboard jerks had mocked her husband, John. They created an unflattering term to describe failing in pressure moments and attached his name to it. Thus, “Shuster” became a verb in the Urban Dictionary. He became a punch line. Screw something up and you Shustered it.
He heard it. His wife heard it. It wounded them deeply and made them question whether the pursuit was worth the heartache and torment.
Then he failed again four years later and his own organization kicked him to the curb. Told him he wasn’t good enough. So long, pal. The Olympics aren’t for you. Two strikes and you’re out, apparently.
Now come back to the present, and this moment, as pure jubilation engulfs Sara. She’s crying and hugging everyone and down below on the ice stands her husband.
John Shuster, Olympic champion.
“This is our miracle on ice,” says Jackie Shuster, John’s mother.
Nothing in sports tops unexpected success, and the U.S. men’s curling team, led by its skip, Shuster, engineered one of the greatest surprise endings in Olympic history Saturday.
One week ago, Shuster’s team was on life support with a 2-4 record in round-robin play. On Saturday, they won the first curling gold medal in U.S. Olympic history.
That feat requires context to fully appreciate. Shuster went 2-7 and finished in ninth place at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He went 2-7 and finished 10th at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
He started 2-4 here and, well, his team went and won the whole darn thing, toppling traditional curling powers along the way. Team Shuster became a runaway locomotive in winning five games in a row.
Shuster sealed a 10-7 win over Sweden for gold with an epic mic drop — a double takeout shot that scored five points in the eighth end.
“This is a great story,” beamed Tom Shuster, his dad.
No, this is a fairy tale.
His Olympic setbacks could have broken his spirit. His poor showing in Vancouver brought blistering criticism from curling fans. Never mind that he was 26 at the time.
“It was incredibly hard on him,” Sara said an hour before the gold medal game. “You listen to all that garbage and everything you see, it puts you in a bad place.”
Sara says her husband didn’t doubt that he was good enough to compete against the best in the world. But he wondered if exposing himself to more heartbreak was worth it when he has more important priorities that bring him so much joy, his two young sons.
He couldn’t walk away from a sport that he loves. USA Curling’s decision to not invite him to a new high-performance program after Sochi’s disappointing finish only strengthened his resolve.
“You appreciate this 100-fold, being where he’s come from,” Sara said. “As long as we’ve been together, all I’ve seen is a John Shuster that’s gone to the Olympics and had heartache and a lot of struggles.”
That’s why his family, friends and fans came to party Wednesday. At worst, they were going home with a silver medal, the best finish ever for American curlers.
Supporters gathered in the upper level of Gangneung Curling Centre so that they could cheer together as one rowdy section. And they have a choreographed cheer for everything, even when someone makes a beer run.
That one originated earlier in the tournament when a couple of guys returned from the concession stand with a cardboard box loaded with beers.
Everyone started chanting, “Box of beer! Box of beer!” It became a ritual.
Tom Shuster often paces during games, but he settles into a seat as the pregame video plays. Nervous?
“Oh yeah,” he says.
The Americans fall behind 2-0 early. Shuster’s 4-year-old son, Luke, energizes the crowd with his favorite cheer.
“Give me U,” he screams.
“Give me an S.”
“Give me an A.”
“Who are we?”
The crowd roars, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Shuster often hears Luke’s voice down on the ice, which he says makes him smile and feel relaxed. Good thing because the game is tense as the lead goes back and forth.
Then Shuster drops his five-point dagger, and the place erupts. The outcome is secure.
Minutes later, it’s official. Tears start to flow.
Sara carries 2-year-old Logan to get closer to the ice for the medal ceremony. Grandma Jackie has Luke, who is giddy with excitement.
“We’ve been hoping for this,” Luke says, “and we wanted to win a gold medal and it’s true now.”
Yes, it is true. His dad is an Olympic champion. His last name is attached to it, forever.