GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Four years after the fact, John Shuster could still remember every detail. “They did the first athlete combine right here,” he said, looking around a room at the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine. “I’m 15 feet away from the spot where USA Curling said, ‘You’re not good enough.’ ”
More than anything, Shuster said, he recalled the exact wording of the 2014 news release announcing the roster for USA Curling’s new high-performance program. Director Derek Brown said he picked the 10 players who gave the U.S. the best chance of international success looking forward. That did not include Shuster, the Chisholm native and former Duluth resident who had skipped two Olympic teams and won a bronze medal with Pete Fenson’s foursome in 2006.
“When I saw that quote, that’s when I decided that was not the case,” Shuster said, with a wry grin. “And I was going to make sure that was known. By winning.”
In late December, Shuster sat in that same room, as the skip of the U.S. team for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Just as he vowed, he proved USA Curling made a mistake when it rejected him. Shuster rededicated himself to being the best male skip in America, then assembled a team of equally driven athletes who have rolled to top-five finishes at the past three world championships.
Since he was left off that first high-performance roster, Shuster has shed 33 pounds, vastly improved his fitness and strength and had a second son with his wife, Sara. By beating Heath McCormick’s team at the Olympic trials in November, Shuster became the first American man to make four Olympic curling teams.
His foursome — which includes Tyler George and John Landsteiner of Duluth and Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wis. — quickly made good on its goal of showing USA Curling that they could compete and win internationally. They captured the U.S. championship less than a year after forming, defeating teams that were part of the high-performance program that turned Shuster away.
They now belong to the program themselves, on Shuster’s terms. When they were invited in 2015, he insisted they would join as a unit, or not at all.
Again, he won, continuing a pattern he hopes to ride all the way to the gold medal game in Pyeongchang.
“I thought I was going to help develop the [high-performance] program, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t even picked to be in it,’’ said Shuster, whose team is 22nd in the World Curling Tour rankings. “They said, ‘Sorry. You’re not wanted.’ That’s maybe what hurt the most.
“That day, I committed for the next four years. I was driven. When someone tells you you’re not part of the plan, it’s always nice to show them you’d better be part of the plan. To prove somebody wrong on that scale is very satisfying.’’
At the 2006 Turin Games, Shuster helped earn the only Olympic curling medal ever won by the U.S. He left Fenson’s team to lead his own, and he skipped the Americans to a ninth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and 10th at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
He comes to Pyeongchang as a wiser, more mature athlete, formed as much by his disappointments as his successes. Within a few days of receiving his rejection e-mail, Shuster recruited George, who was considering taking a break from curling and didn’t participate in the combine. Hamilton and Landsteiner, like Shuster, were not chosen.
Shuster picked the foursome based mainly on talent and motivation. But George credited Shuster with being willing to seek a new kind of team, with stronger personalities who would challenge him on the ice in a more collaborative environment.
“I could hear the fire in his voice about what he wanted to do, especially after what happened,’’ said George, a former skip. “And we thought if this team worked, it was going to work big.’’
Shuster recognized that he needed to be a better athlete if he was going to make a serious run at another Olympics. He found a supportive training environment at the YMCAs in Duluth and Superior, Wis., where he now lives, and refashioned his body while he polished his game.
Always a superb shotmaker, Shuster has become a better leader since Sochi. His teammates noted his skill at bringing out the best in each of them, as well as his ability to manage a game. Shuster isn’t afraid of the pressure that comes with a big shot, nor is he shy about taking a more aggressive tack when the situation calls for it.
“He’s more focused,’’ said Landsteiner, a Shuster teammate for eight years. “He’s found a way to control his emotions more, and he’s just more mature as a skip. It’s been fun to see.’’
Since the birth of sons Lucas, 4, and Logan, 2, Shuster has felt his perspective shift. He no longer lives and dies with every shot, though he hasn’t lost his zeal for competition.
His team has made the finals of the U.S. championships in each of its three seasons together, winning twice, and has built a substantial international résumé. With the backing of the high-performance program, the foursome has competed regularly against the world’s best teams. It enters the Olympics with victories over many of the opponents it will face in Pyeongchang, giving him a faith he didn’t have in previous Games.
Brown, the high-performance director whose words stung Shuster four years ago, is impressed by what he’s seen since then.
“It was a tough decision [to cut Shuster],’’ Brown said. “We knew John was very talented and experienced. But it’s absolutely his character to work hard and come back.’’
Having made it this far, Shuster sees no reason he can’t keep going.
“My confidence in myself and my team is at an all-time high, because of the success we’ve had together,’’ he said. “I know the work we’ve put in. To have that finish with an Olympic medal would be pretty darn sweet.’’