FARGO, N.D. – They stood together on the Olympic podium in 2006, with bronze medals around their necks and their arms around each other. Pete Fenson and John Shuster forever will be connected in history, as teammates who brought the United States the only medal it ever has won in Olympic curling.
The two Minnesotans now find themselves in opposite corners, facing off for the chance to return to the Winter Games.
Teams skipped by Shuster, of Duluth, and Fenson, of Bemidji, finished atop the round-robin tournament that ended Thursday at the U.S. Olympic curling trials to move on to the finals.
They will play a best-of-three series beginning Friday at Fargo’s Scheels Arena, with the winner earning the right to represent the United States in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The victorious men’s team still must compete in an Olympic qualifying tournament next month to stamp the Americans’ ticket to the Sochi Games.
The women already have reserved their Olympic berth, which will go to Allison Pottinger or Erika Brown. Teams led by Pottinger, of Eden Prairie, and Brown, a Wisconsin native who lives in Ontario, also will play a best-of-three final beginning Friday.
Shuster left Fenson’s team after the 2006 Olympics to form his own. While Shuster team won the Olympic trials and competed in the 2010 Vancouver Games, Fenson’s won back-to-back national titles in 2010 and 2011.
With all they know about each other, both said, one thing stands out: Each knows his team has no margin for error.
“We’re similar teams, with similar strengths and weaknesses,’’ said Fenson, whose team also includes Joe Polo of Duluth, Shawn Rojeski of Chisholm, Minn., and Ryan Brunt of Portage, Wis. “We have a lot of respect for those guys. We know we’re going to have to play great.’’
Shuster’s team earned its place in the finals with a 4-3 victory over Fenson to end round-robin play Thursday. Tyler George of Duluth could have forced a tiebreaker with Fenson for the second finals berth, but his team lost 8-5 to Heath McCormick on Thursday to end its bid. Shuster’s team led the round robin with a 6-2 record, with Fenson going 5-3 to finish second.
After winning Olympic bronze in Turin, Shuster split with Fenson, Polo and Rojeski to pursue his longtime dream of being a skip himself. His current team includes Jeff Isaacson of Gilbert, Minn., who was on his 2010 Olympic roster, and youngsters Jared Zezel of Hibbing, Minn., and John Landsteiner of Duluth, whom Shuster recruited to make his run at a third Olympics.
Shuster manages the Pickwick Restaurant one day a week and is a stay-at-home dad to son Luke. As he prepared for the trials, he built his practice schedules around his 6-month-old’s sleeping habits. When Luke was ready for a nap, Shuster put him in the car, drove to the Duluth Curling Club and threw as many rocks as he could before the baby awoke.
That required a certain amount of patience, a quality that was central to Shuster’s victory Thursday. His team broke a 0-0 tie with three points in the fifth end and held off a late Fenson charge with superb shot-making, avenging an 8-5 loss to the Fenson team two days earlier.
“We’ve played against them so much,’’ Shuster said. “You know those guys are going to make shots, and you need to execute in order to win those games. We had a lot of confidence, but we knew we couldn’t come in and play anything less than our A game. We’ve put them together here.’’
Women: Brown vs. Pottinger
In the women’s draw, defending U.S. champion Brown defeated Pottinger 5-4 on the last rock Thursday to set up a rematch between those teams in the finals. Both teams finished 4-2 in round-robin play.
Pottinger is a 10-time national champ and was on the 2010 Olympic team skipped by Debbie McCormick. Her team includes Natalie Nicholson of Bemidji, Tabitha Peterson of Eagan and Nicole Joraanstad of Verona, Wis. Jessica Schultz of Minneapolis is on Brown’s team.
The matchup pits several former teammates against each other.
Both skips predicted tightly contested games, with Brown expecting the team that is “an inch better’’ with its shots to earn the Olympic berth.
Game 2 for both the men and the women is Saturday, with Game 3 — if necessary — on Sunday.