Olympic curler Shuster is solid as a rock back at skip

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 12:08 AM

The mental slate has been erased, and John Shuster will compete in Sochi with a new group and new resolve.

– 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.’’







 

  • related content

  • Video: Sochi 2014: Curler John Shuster

    Saturday January 25, 2014

    Olympic curler John Shuster is back for more after a poor Olympics in Vancouver.

  • Chart: The John Shuster file

    Saturday January 25, 2014

    The Shuster fileSport: curling • Age: 31Hometown: ChisholmCurrent residence: DuluthFamily: wife, Sara; son Luke, 8 monthsOlympic history: Will compete in his...

  • John Shuster and his new team came through under the pressure of of Olympic qualifying in Germany, earning the skip another chance to represent the United States.

  • U.S. Olympic curler John Shuster chilled with son Luke during a break from the ice earlier this month at the Duluth Curling Club.

  • Curler John Shuster went for a target at the Duluth Curling Club

  • U.S. skip John Shuster, left, along with Jeff Isaacson, Jason Smith and John Benton, didn’t get the result he wanted at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Shuster was benched after an 0-4 start and later was bombarded with criticism.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Tampa Bay - WP: J. McGee 6 FINAL
Toronto - LP: B. Morrow 5
Cleveland - LP: B. Shaw 4 FINAL
Detroit - WP: P. Coke 6
Washington - WP: J. Zimmermann 3 FINAL
NY Mets - LP: J. Niese 0
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Turner 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: E. Volquez 7
Miami - WP: A. DeSclafani 5 FINAL
Philadelphia - LP: J. Papelbon 4
Cincinnati - LP: M. Leake 2 FINAL
Milwaukee - WP: M. Garza 9
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 8 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: J. Vargas 4
Minnesota - WP: T. May 6 FINAL
Chicago WSox - LP: H. Noesi 4
Colorado - LP: J. Lyles 1 FINAL
St. Louis - WP: M. Gonzales 4
Atlanta - LP: M. Minor 3 FINAL
Texas - WP: C. Lewis 10
Houston - WP: D. Keuchel 6 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: H. Santiago 1
Los Angeles - WP: C. Kershaw 4 FINAL
San Francisco - LP: Y. Petit 2
San Diego - LP: O. Despaigne 6 FINAL
Arizona - WP: Z. Spruill 8
Oakland - WP: J. Lester 4 FINAL
Seattle - LP: C. Young 0
NY Yankees - LP: D. Robertson 2 FINAL
Baltimore - WP: D. O`Day 3
Miami 10 FINAL
Buffalo 29
Jacksonville 10 FINAL
Washington 41
Dallas 26 FINAL
Tennessee 10
Arizona 25 FINAL
NY Giants 14
New England 30 FINAL
Minnesota 7
New Orleans 24 FINAL
Cleveland 26
Atlanta 10 FINAL
Cincinnati 24
Detroit 7 FINAL
Carolina 24
St. Louis 19 FINAL
Tampa Bay 17
Seattle 21 FINAL
San Diego 30
NY Jets 24 FINAL
Green Bay 31
Kansas City 17 FINAL
Denver 24
Houston 30 FINAL
Oakland 14
Chicago 28 FINAL
San Francisco 20
Philadelphia 7:30 PM
Indianapolis
Tampa Bay 9/18/14 7:25 PM
Atlanta
Boise State 38 FINAL
Connecticut 21
Indiana 42 FINAL
Bowling Green 45
Ga Southern 38 FINAL
Georgia Tech 42
Syracuse 40 FINAL
Central Mich 3
UCF 10 FINAL
(18) Missouri 38
Massachusetts 31 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
Ohio U 14 FINAL
Marshall 44
West Virginia 40 FINAL
Maryland 37
Kent State 0 FINAL
(23) Ohio State 66
Pittsburgh 42 FINAL
FIU 25
East Carolina 28 FINAL
Virginia Tech 21
Louisville 21 FINAL
Virginia 23
Wyoming 14 FINAL
(2) Oregon 48
Air Force 48 FINAL
Georgia State 38
(13) Georgia 35 FINAL
(14) So Carolina 38
Arkansas 49 FINAL
Texas Tech 28
Iowa State 20 FINAL
Iowa 17
Miami-Ohio 10 FINAL
Michigan 34
Kansas 3 FINAL
Duke 41
NC State 49 FINAL
So Florida 17
Arkansas State 20 FINAL
Miami-Florida 41
Miss State 35 FINAL
South Alabama 3
Louisiana 15 FINAL
(10) Ole Miss 56
Minnesota 7 FINAL
TCU 30
Illinois 19 FINAL
Washington 44
Army 0 FINAL
(16) Stanford 35
Western Mich 45 FINAL
Idaho 33
Eastern Mich 3 FINAL
Old Dominion 17
Southern Miss 12 FINAL
(3) Alabama 52
Northern Ill 48 FINAL
UNLV 34
Tulsa 21 FINAL
Fla Atlantic 50
ULM 0 FINAL
(8) LSU 31
Wake Forest 24 FINAL
Utah State 36
Western Ky 47 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 50
TX-San Antonio 13 FINAL
(25) Oklahoma State 43
Purdue 14 FINAL
(9) Notre Dame 30
Kentucky 30 FINAL
Florida 36
New Mexico St 24 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 42
Tennessee 10 FINAL
(4) Oklahoma 34
(17) USC 31 FINAL
Boston College 37
Navy 35 FINAL
Texas State 21
(12) UCLA 20 FINAL
Texas 17
Penn State 13 FINAL
Rutgers 10
Rice 10 FINAL
(6) Texas A&M 38
(15) Arizona State 38 FINAL
Colorado 24
(24) Nebraska 55 FINAL
Fresno State 19
Nevada 28 FINAL
Arizona 35
(5) Auburn 9/18/14 6:30 PM
(20) Kansas State
Connecticut 9/19/14 7:00 PM
So Florida
Old Dominion 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Rice
Troy 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(13) Georgia
Georgia Tech 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Virginia Tech
Eastern Mich 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(11) Michigan State
Iowa 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Maryland 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Syracuse
Tulane 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Duke
Hawaii 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Marshall 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Carolina 9/20/14 2:30 PM
East Carolina
Army 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Virginia 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(21) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 9/20/14 2:30 PM
SMU
Rutgers 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Central Mich 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Kansas
Utah 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Florida 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(3) Alabama
Louisville 9/20/14 2:30 PM
FIU
Fla Atlantic 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Wyoming
Indiana 9/20/14 3:00 PM
(18) Missouri
San Jose St 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Minnesota
Texas State 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Illinois
Massachusetts 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Penn State
Georgia State 9/20/14 5:00 PM
Washington
Appalachian St 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Miss State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
(8) LSU
Northern Ill 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas
Middle Tennessee 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Memphis
Utah State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Miami-Ohio 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Idaho 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Ohio U
Ball State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
(14) So Carolina 9/20/14 6:30 PM
Vanderbilt
(4) Oklahoma 9/20/14 6:30 PM
West Virginia
Ga Southern 9/20/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
UNLV 9/20/14 7:00 PM
Houston
(22) Clemson 9/20/14 7:00 PM
(1) Florida State
Miami-Florida 9/20/14 7:00 PM
(24) Nebraska
New Mexico 9/20/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 9/20/14 9:00 PM
Arizona
Louisiana 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Boise State
(2) Oregon 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
San Diego St 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Oregon State
Los Angeles 1 FINAL
San Jose 1
Montreal 16 FINAL
Edmonton 33
Toronto 33 FINAL
Calgary 40
Winnipeg 9 FINAL
Brt Columbia 26
Saskatchewan 3 FINAL
Hamilton 28

ADVERTISEMENT

Advertisement
Golden Gavel by Star Tribune

Countdown to great deals

Bid Sept. 21-29

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Grade the Vikings offense

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close