FARGO, N.D. — With a medal around his neck and a silver winner’s bowl in his hand, John Shuster should have been serenaded by cowbells and cheers when the U.S. Olympic curling trials ended Sunday afternoon. Instead, the Duluth skip said, “it was like a funeral in here.’’
The spectators at Scheels Arena sat in stunned silence, trying to comprehend how a game expected to be a thrilling, three-hour affair was cut short when Pete Fenson conceded after only four ends. Confounded by fast ice that yielded little curl, Fenson’s team missed shot after shot. When the deficit reached 11-1, the Bemidji skip turned to Shuster, shook his hand and bowed out, giving Shuster and his all-Minnesota team the opportunity to secure an Olympic berth and play in the Sochi Winter Games.
Even Shuster — who won an Olympic bronze medal with Fenson in 2006 and was skip of the 2010 Olympic team — was subdued. In order to become a three-time Olympian, he and his team must finish in the top two in an Olympic qualifying tournament next month in Germany. After rushing to the corner of the rink to embrace his wife, Sara, and baby son, Luke, he already was thinking past the strange end to the trials and ahead to the next task.
“When you get behind in curling and start pressing a little bit, that is something that can absolutely happen,’’ Shuster said. “It’s unfortunate for those guys and for TV that today was one of those, but that seriously is the sport.
“[Not being qualified for the Olympics] tempers it a lot. I guarantee you, if we were going to the Olympics right now, already qualified, there would be a few more butterflies floating around. But we have more work ahead of us. I know every one of these guys is thinking about the work we’re going to do.’’
USA Curling officials could not recall such a premature end to a game in a major tournament. With only four of the regulation 10 ends played, it lasted only about an hour and 13 minutes. The playing surface already was dismantled by the time the medal ceremony was supposed to start, and NBC Sports Network was forced to fill time allotted for its live telecast with a hockey documentary.
Shuster said that he and teammates Jeff Isaacson of Gilbert, Jared Zezel of Hibbing and John Landsteiner of Duluth also struggled with reading the ice. Their game plan was to play aggressively from the start, and they took a 2-1 lead after two ends. Things began to fall apart for Fenson’s team in the third, when it tried three times to place rocks in scoring position via a far outside path and missed on all three.
The Shuster team wasn’t as precise as it wanted to be, but it was good enough to score five in that end for a 7-1 lead. Two more misfires by Fenson in the fourth end allowed Shuster to seize four more points, putting Fenson so far behind that he saw no point in continuing.
“Losing is hard, but giving up there wasn’t that tough of a decision,’’ said Fenson, who added that it is rare for a game to get out of reach so quickly. “If we make [the shot in the third end] one time, we’re in pretty good shape. We just didn’t make any.
“That one particular track we were throwing our draws on in the third, we didn’t get any curl, really. It was just a little bit fast and straight, and we got fooled.’’
Shuster said “no curler in the world’’ would have continued to play in that situation. He was proud of his team for playing consistently well throughout the tournament, living up to the high expectations he set for the foursome when he assembled it over the past couple of years.
Eight countries will compete Dec. 10-15 in Fussen, Germany, for the final two berths in the 10-team Olympic tournament. Shuster said his team is ranked higher than any other in the qualifier, and he is confident in its chances of locking up a place in the Olympics.
The U.S. women already have qualified for the Olympics; Saturday night in Fargo, skip Erika Brown and teammates Debbie McCormick, Ann Swisshelm and Jessica Schultz of Minneapolis won the women’s competition at the trials to become the first Americans nominated to the 2014 Olympic team.