Asked to pick a favorite moment from his six-month victory tour, John Shuster paused for a long while. It hardly seemed like a fair question, considering the joyride he’s been on since skipping the United States to its first Olympic gold medal in curling.
There was the state dinner at the White House, when the Chisholm native spent a black-tie evening with Cabinet members and U.S. Supreme Court justices. The rock he threw to deliver a ceremonial puck at an outdoor NHL game. The athlete-to-athlete conversation with golf icon Jack Nicklaus, who met Shuster’s team at a PGA tournament and wanted to know all about the path to gold.
“His assistant asked if we had time to talk to him. It’s Jack Nicklaus!” Shuster said last week, still incredulous at his newfound celebrity. “The things we’ve been getting to do, they’re things where you usually have to win a contest to get to do them. That’s what it feels like.”
Team Shuster embarked on a new season in late August, finishing second in a World Curling Tour event in Winnipeg before heading to Chaska to play in NBC’s “Curling Night in America.” Its return to the ice has put Shuster, John Landsteiner, Matt Hamilton and Joe Polo back into a more familiar environment, reacquainting them with the lives they led before making history at the Pyeongchang Games.
That stunning victory over Sweden in the gold medal game vaulted Team Shuster to instant fame. It now has a Chicago-based agent fielding a flood of offers for speeches and appearances. There has been talk of a movie based on its story, as well as a reality show.
Team members are frequently recognized — even on the street in New York City — and approached by strangers who want photos and autographs.
“Sometimes, it’s a little overwhelming,” said Landsteiner, a Mapleton, Minn., native and current Duluth resident. “So many people want to meet you and ask questions. I don’t think any of us saw this coming.”
Certainly not Shuster, whose mighty five-point stone in the Olympic final turned them all into full-blown rock stars.
“You picture what winning a gold is going to do for yourself and your team, and maybe for curling in the country,” said Shuster, a longtime Duluth resident who now lives in Superior, Wis. “But I don’t think I realized the change it was going to have in my life. It’s incredibly different.”
The team has a slightly new look this season, with Chris Plys moving into the vice-skip spot vacated by fellow Duluthian Tyler George, who is taking a break from the sport. Everyone else returns from the five-man group that started 2-4 in Pyeongchang before rallying for one of the biggest upsets of the Winter Games.
Shuster got a taste of what was to come when fans packed the Duluth airport to meet their flight home from South Korea. A few days later, the U.S. Olympic Committee whisked the curlers off to New York City. They appeared on network TV shows, rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and were greeted with a “USA!” chant at a hit Broadway show, “The Play That Goes Wrong,” where George and Hamilton made a cameo appearance onstage to sweep up.
USA Curling CEO Rick Patzke had long wondered what an Olympic gold medal would do for the sport. The answer began to reveal itself on that trip, when the team couldn’t walk through the hotel lobby without being recognized.
“I jokingly say, ‘You can’t get rid of these guys,’ ” Patzke said of Team Shuster’s popularity. “Every time you turn around, there they are. That’s kept curling in the limelight beyond the Winter Games. It’s been fun, especially for a sport that’s had to fight for any little scrap of attention.”
For the first time in his life, Shuster had to start using a daily organizer to keep track of his schedule. The team also hired its first agent.
Scott Kirkpatrick has booked a busy slate of speaking engagements, autograph sessions, and appearances at curling clinics and corporate outings. A Team Shuster and USA Curling-branded tabletop curling game will hit stores this fall.
George even saw an effect at his family’s liquor store in Duluth, where business has increased since the Olympics. “I thought it would have died down by now,’’ he said. “But six months later, I’m still getting congratulations from customers every day. I’ll be sitting behind the counter, and people will want to hear all about it.’’
That doesn’t surprise Kirkpatrick. While the unexpected gold medal made them stars, he believes they have qualities that will give their popularity a long shelf life.
“These are everyday guys who honed their skills through hard work,’’ he said. “And John has an incredible story. It resonates with people, because everyone has tried things and failed.’’
Grateful for success
That story also has affected the way Shuster has dealt with his sudden fame. He skipped the U.S. men’s teams at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, when it finished at or near the bottom of the standings and was cruelly mocked for its poor performances. After going from goat to gold, he is approaching his new circumstances with a sense of wonder and gratitude.
At the April 24 state dinner, he wore a custom-tailored tuxedo — made by a clothier that began sponsoring the team before the Olympics — and sat between U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and Karen Kelly, wife of John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. After dining on goat cheese gateau and rack of lamb, many guests were shooting videos, but Shuster put his phone down.
“I just wanted to take in the moment,” he said. “To actually be in the White House in all its glory, to come around the corner and hear the string ensemble when you walk in, I knew it was something I’d never get to do again.”
Some of Shuster’s other favorite moments: Playing the final round at a pro-am golf tournament against Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith and Larry the Cable Guy. Throwing knuckleballs with former major league pitcher Tim Wakefield, who told Shuster he is “a big fan.” Participating in several charity fundraising events, expanding his interest in philanthropy.
As fun as all of that has been, Shuster said the most rewarding part of the past few months has been the reaction his gold medal elicits in everyone who sees it. He estimated it has passed through about 5,000 pairs of hands, dulling its finish and leaving the ribbon dingy and worn.
In Shuster’s eyes, that makes it more beautiful than ever.
“I’m really enjoying being an ambassador for curling, for the USA, for sport in general,” he said. “To talk about the value of sports in people’s lives, all the positive things, that’s very special to me.
“You win a medal for your country, not for yourself. That medal is why people want to see us, and I love sharing it, letting people see it and touch it. It belongs to everyone in America.’’