DULUTH – With his practice session complete, John Shuster left the ice at the Duluth Curling Club and tucked his 8-month-old son, Luke, into his car seat for the ride home. The three-time Olympian gathered up the last of the baby gear and slipped it into a navy-blue backpack with a USA logo. “Pretty cool diaper bag, huh?’’ Shuster said, zipping up the knapsack issued to American athletes at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
He can smile at it now, having shed the emotional baggage of that ill-fated February. After winning a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics as part of Pete Fenson’s team, Shuster returned four years later as the American skip in Vancouver, where his team’s ugly 2-7 finish turned him into a punchline. More than 18 months later, Shuster couldn’t watch video of those Olympics without his heart racing and his nerves fraying.
Those memories gradually faded with the help of a new team, whose gathering strength has given him a rare and precious opportunity: an Olympic-sized second chance. The skip who took so much heat in Vancouver proved his cool late last year, when he and three fellow Minnesotans vanquished a stacked field at the Olympic trials, then clawed their way through a tough Olympic qualifier in Germany to earn a berth in Sochi.
Shuster, 31, dismisses the assumption that he is driven by the ghosts of Vancouver. “My motivation is that I’ve been doing everything I could my entire life to win a world championship and a gold medal for our country at the Olympics,’’ he said. “My motivation really comes from trying to be the best and having teammates that do the same.’’
Those teammates, however, also want to write a happier ending to his second turn as an Olympic skip. “We all saw what happened last time,’’ said John Landsteiner, 23. “The past is not our focus, but he took so much criticism. We want to win for our country and for ourselves, and to give John a better result.’’
Vancouver’s failure stung
Heading into Sochi, Shuster is wholly devoted to two pursuits: curling and fatherhood. His team includes Jeff Isaacson of Gilbert, who was Shuster’s vice-skip at the Vancouver Olympics; Landsteiner, a civil engineer who lives in Duluth; and Jared Zezel, a Hibbing native and student at Bemidji State.
Shuster gave up his part-time job managing Duluth’s Pickwick Restaurant last fall to prepare for the Olympic trials. He balances training and competition with life as a stay-at-home dad, taking Luke to the curling club several times a week. “I practice while he sleeps in his car seat,’’ Shuster said. “If he wakes up, I’ll bring him out on the ice so he can watch me slide by.’’
Eight years ago, Shuster was the young prodigy of the Olympic curling team, plucked from the junior ranks by Fenson and groomed into a national champion. A basketball and baseball player during his childhood in Chisholm, Shuster didn’t throw a rock until he was 15.
He quickly discovered his mind was made for the sport. His aptitude for science and math helped him understand how to play angles, how to make the stone curl just so, how hard to sweep to change the rock’s path or speed. With his perfectionist tendencies and outgoing personality, Shuster won his first U.S. men’s title at age 20 in his first season as the lead for the Fenson team.
Studying under Fenson, one of the best American skips in history, Shuster learned how to devise strategy and manage a team. After capturing the Olympic bronze in 2006 — the only Olympic curling medal ever won by the U.S. — Shuster formed his own team and began pointing toward 2010.
He won the Olympic trials with teammates Isaacson, Jason Smith and John Benton. In Vancouver, though, Shuster failed to make his last shots in several early games as the Americans stumbled to a series of one-point losses in extra ends. After an 0-4 start, he was benched for one game and replaced by alternate Chris Plys.
Shuster said his team did not adapt well to the demands of playing at the Olympics, though he accepts responsibility for missing game-winning shots. His fellow curlers could empathize. “We’ve all had games go like that; it’s the nature of curling,’’ said Craig Brown, the current alternate on Shuster’s team and a former skip. “But we’d never had it happen in that kind of spotlight. John was judged very harshly.’’
The faceless juries of the Internet were particularly cruel. The verb “to Shuster’’ — meaning to choke or to fail — was added to the online Urban Dictionary. His biography on Wikipedia was altered, calling him “the biggest choke artist of the 2010 Winter Olympics’’ and comparing him to noted baseball goat Bill Buckner.
Deeply wounded, Shuster sat on his balcony at the Olympic Village one night and pondered his future. “I really did some soul-searching,’’ he said. “The sport I loved just caused so much pain and agony. Was it worth all the sacrifices I made? Was it worth the sacrifices that the people around me made? I wasn’t sure.
“But then the phone calls went out to [fiancée] Sara and my parents. And they told me I was crazy, that they wouldn’t change a thing. If I wanted to keep chasing, they were going to be with me, and if I didn’t want to, that would be fine, too. It didn’t take long to make that decision.’’
Sara Shuster, who married John the summer after those Olympics, knew which path he would choose. “My heart broke for him,’’ she said. “But I reminded him, this wasn’t just his dream. It’s our dream. That wasn’t a great time, and that’s part of what’s great about this [Olympics]. He has a chance to go back and do what he wants to do.’’
Building a new team
After the Vancouver Games, Brown invited Shuster to join his team and play the third position. “He’s resilient, but I don’t think it hurt him to have someone else in charge,’’ Brown said. “This took some attention off of him and gave him a chance to get back into it without scrutiny.’’
That lasted one season before Shuster decided to start fresh as a skip. He recruited Zach Jacobson, a farmer from North Dakota, and two gifted junior players — Zezel and Landsteiner — who reminded him of himself in his younger years.
With two years to develop before the Olympic trials, Shuster believed the foursome could become a contender. They finished third at the U.S. championships in 2012, but Jacobson had to bow out when the Olympic trials were scheduled during the November harvest season. Shuster replaced him with Isaacson, a longtime friend.
The team did not qualify for the Olympic trials, but it was added by a selection committee based on its back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2013 nationals. Two weeks after defeating an exceptional field at the trials in Fargo, N.D., Shuster had to navigate an even more nerve-racking situation: qualifying his team, and his country, for the Olympics.
Shuster’s team had to travel to Germany and finish in the top two at an eight-team tournament to claim a spot in Sochi. After a 2-2 start, Shuster settled his teammates and showed a steady hand himself, reeling off five consecutive victories — including two in elimination games — to earn the return trip to the Winter Games.
“The pressure there was huge,’’ Landsteiner said. “John really helped Jared and I in Germany. He’s a leader, he’s a communicator, and he gives very high attention to all the tiny things that make the difference in a game. And he’s just a really good curler.’’
The Duluth Curling Club is particularly proud of Shuster, who used to tend bar there. There are photos of him and his teammates tacked up on bulletin boards, near the schedules of the Monday night mixed league he plays in with Sara and the Tuesday men’s league he plays in with some friends. “Everyone is excited for him,’’ said St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, who proudly notes that he and teammate Sammy Perrella — owner of local landmark Sammy’s Pizza — lost to Shuster for the club championship last year. “It’s fun for all of us.’’
Sara, a pharmacy resident at a Duluth hospital, and Luke will follow Shuster all the way to Sochi. Some of the memories of his last Olympic experience will come with him, too, but they won’t be unwelcome baggage.
Four years later, Shuster said, he can find value in what happened there, in the place where he chose not to let defeat define him. He will get another backpack/diaper bag just for being on the team, but he feels prepared to bring home a more valuable souvenir, too.
“I’m excited to show people how great a team I have,’’ Shuster said. “I have to pinch myself a little bit. I’ve been blessed with an incredible opportunity.’’