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.’’