Rock bottom to rock solid: Four-time Olympian John Shuster within a stone's throw of another curling medal
DULUTH—Perhaps no American Olympic athlete experienced as much vitriol as John Shuster faced the past two Winter Games.
Every four years the curling skip was the subject of cruel Twitter memes and GIFs, with #JohnShustersucks trending online.
One could say the general public threw stones at the stone-thrower.
Even USA Curling turned its back on the one-time prodigy by not including him in the original High Performance Program (HPP) following the 2014 Games.
Given such circumstances, the Chisholm native and Duluth Curling Club member could have shirked the limelight and been relegated as just a footnote in Olympic history.
Instead, the 35-year-old, four-time Olympian formed his own team — Team Rejects as it became known — represented the United States at three consecutive world championships and will be leaving Tuesday, Jan. 30, en route to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in an attempt to win a second Olympic medal.
"This one's different," Shuster said during a recent interview at the Duluth Curling Club. "This team formed right after the last Olympics — we've been together since November 2014. This is definitely the most seasoned team I've been on."
Team USA includes Tyler George and John Landsteiner, both of whom live in Duluth, Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wis., and alternate Joe Polo of Duluth.
It's not the team USA Curling envisioned representing the country, especially after Shuster's ninth-place finish in the 10-team competition four years ago in Sochi, Russia.
Following that disaster and the ensuing barrage of Shuster-bashing on internet message boards, USA Curling created the High Performance Program to better fund and train its elite curlers. Instead of relying on curlers with full-time jobs, the move toward full-time curling was implemented.
Shuster, however, was not in USA Curling's plans.
"We were put on notice; it was a wake-up call," he says.
Team Rejects excels
Instead of sulking and limiting his curling participation to league night at the DCC, Shuster rounded up a quality group of curlers who also didn't make USA Curling's cut.
There was vice skip George, who was on the runner-up team at the 2010 U.S. Olympic trials; Landsteiner, the lead, who was Shuster's teammate in Sochi; and Hamilton, Landsteiner's good friend and the team's second, who was a two-time national junior champion.
"There's a whole lot to be said about team chemistry in high-level curling," said Hamilton, who also qualified in the debut of Olympic mixed doubles curling. "You can't just throw four great guys together and expect a bond and cohesiveness. It worked out that we had a common enemy, so to speak, in that we were rejected or didn't try out for the program. We felt like we had something to prove, and it fueled the fire."
Landsteiner, a native of Mankato, Minn., and a Minnesota Duluth graduate, had decided to focus on his job as a project engineer with Lake Superior Consulting in Duluth and step away from full-time curling before Shuster called in October 2014.
"He was adamant that they had a really good squad in these three, and he was right," Landsteiner recalled.
That team went on to claim the U.S. national title and finish fifth at worlds in the spring of 2015.
"People coined us Team Rejects," Shuster said. "For one season, the whole country was basically cheering for us.
"It was the hand we were dealt in 2014, and we felt we should give it a try. At the end of that 2014-15 season ... it was the first time that it felt like it was the beginning of something for me. So I'm not surprised to see it culminate with where we are right now."
Eveleth native Phill Drobnick, coach of the U.S. men's team, saw Shuster take the rejection and transform it in a positive manner.
"John took not getting into the program and made himself better," Drobnick said. "It re-focused him and drove him and made him realize that not everything is going to be handed to you. And you have to work harder than any other athletes out there, and that's what he did."
Though he used the slight as motivation that year, Shuster doesn't look down on the HPP.
"The High Performance Program is sometimes seen as evil, but it gets a bad rap," he says. "That program allows us to be athletes and not be something else first, and get the support (financially) that athletes get."
For Shuster and several other Olympians, that financial support comes from Dick's Sporting Goods, which has a relationship with the United States Olympic Committee that allows them to offer athletes flexible job scheduling and a competitive wage in return for sponsorship rights.
Handled criticism well
Shuster was on top of the American curling world in 2006 after earning a bronze medal in Turin, Italy — the United States' first Olympic medal in the sport — as part of Pete Fenson's rink.
Four years later in Vancouver, British Columbia, Shuster was skip of the American team that had high hopes of duplicating a podium finish.
Instead, Team USA went 2-7 and tied for last in the 10-team field. Worse, Shuster earned social media scorn for his on-ice comments such as "I hate this stupid game" after a poor throw.
Internet chat boards were populated with blistering comments.
The online Urban Dictionary even coined a new term "Shuster," a verb meaning "to fail to meet expectations, particularly at a moment critical for success or even slightly respectable results."
The online heckling didn't abate four years later in Sochi when the U.S. again started slowly and finished above only Germany in the standings.
The cyber bullying appeared to affect Shuster at the time, but he's turned a blind eye since.
"It's the day and age of the troll," he said. "I had more time to care about it then, but now I don't even turn on Twitter anymore."
Teammates say the heat Shuster took was unjustified and came from people who only follow curling once every Olympiad.
"It comes from people who don't pay attention to the sport," George said. "It would be expected from anybody who doesn't have any real insight into the game to throw stones, no pun intended, from afar and say, 'They're not performing up to the level (they should),' and get pretty mean about it.
"John has taken it in stride. I know he's grown a lot as a person from those experiences. You try not to let other people's opinions affect how you feel about yourself or your game."
One reason for the increased maturity is fatherhood, Shuster says.
"I don't live and die on curling shots and games anymore," he said. "I understand the importance of them and the work we put together as a team, but in the same breath while curling is the most important thing I do, it's not the most important thing on the planet to me."
That role is now reserved to being a father to 4-year-old Luke and 2-year-old Logan and husband to Sara at their Superior residence.
"I look back from 2010 to now and John is a changed man," Drobnick said. "He's a dad now and it really changed his outlook. His demeanor on the ice is much better. He's a world-class skip now."
Polo, the team's alternate the past two years, says past comments haven't affected Shuster's preparation for these Olympics.
"He's handled it really well," Polo said. "Any athlete that's underperformed or come up with a few bad breaks, they're going to get hit hard. That comes with the territory. He's coming into these Games with a whole different mindset."
Since forming the quartet in late 2014, Shuster's rink has had unparalleled success for an American team.
They had three consecutive top-five finishes at the world championships, including taking bronze in 2016 in Basel, Switzerland.
Drobnick says this is the best-prepared American team in the past few Olympics.
"It's a really exciting team," he said. "They've put four years into this and, from what I see, they are mentally and physically ready for the Olympics. Ty and John are in the prime of their career and playing as well as they've ever played."
Shuster, previously a target for snarky Pillsbury Dough Boy comments, lost 30 pounds in the intervening years.
USA Curling developed an increased reliance on physical training and added sports psychologist Carly Anderson to the mix, a move Shuster's team members say has done wonders.
"She's been able to take all our complaints and criticisms that we express and find a way to make it help us or think a different way. I think that's helped us a lot," Landsteiner said of Anderson. "A year ago (in October 2016) we were playing terrible and felt like the year was not going our way and we weren't sure what to do, and our psychologist took us aside and said, 'It's time to go guys' and gave us a little scolding. We ended up going undefeated at nationals and playing well after that."
Perhaps that has had something to do with Shuster's apparent calm demeanor during tense times.
At the 2018 Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., Shuster topped the round-robin standings at 6-2 but lost the opening game of the best-of-three finals to Heath McCormick.
"It felt like there was a lot more pressure than (2014) because we were the top team coming in and expecting to win," Landsteiner said.
Shuster handled the pressure and won 9-4 and 7-5 in the final two matches to secure a fourth Olympic berth.
"We always thought there was potential for this from the time we put the team together," George said. "This is a different team (from past Olympics). You can look at our track record from the last three years, representing the country at the world championships and finishing in the top five all three times. We're the only team to do that.
"We don't compare this team to the teams from the past few Olympics. It's a totally different squad, totally different chemistry, totally different mindset going in.
"We've been on the podium at the world championships, been in the playoffs the last three years at the worlds and we expect to do that again at the Olympics."
If that winds up being the end result, perhaps social media warriors will relax their venom on Shuster. At least a little bit.
Either way, Shuster isn't about to let others' opinions determine his curling future. That, more than likely, will come from the home front. But for right now, he's focused on performing his best.
"I feel like I'm the best I've ever been right now," he said, "and I keep feeling every year that I'm getting better and better. Until I see that going in the opposite direction, it's going to be hard to walk away. But at some point, my kids' dreams are going to become my dreams. Whether I'm going to curl until I can't anymore, I'm not sure."
2018 WINTER OLYMPICS
What: Men's and women's team curling
When: Feb. 14-25
Where: Gangneung (South Korea) Curling Centre
TV: NBC Sports Network, CNBC, USA