Every four years, America falls in love with the quirky, laid-back sport of curling, a game designed for slamming brews with pals that has somehow snuck its way into the stuck-up Olympics. And every four years, that love is instantly tested by the performances of John Shuster, the pudgy and perpetually puzzled face of American curling.
The process goes like this: We learn enough about curling to realize that it’s a more complex version of shuffleboard. We begin to root for Team USA. And then Shuster, who has represented Team USA in the past four Winter Olympics, takes shots that even curling noobs can identify as blatant misses.
it is time to sail to the undying lands pic.twitter.com/1v2PtMJuf3— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) February 18, 2018
Each time, the camera finds Shuster, whose missed stone has turned him stone-faced. His look is not “Crap, I’ve messed up.” It’s “Crap, I’ve messed up again.” He’s probably lamenting the failure, and probably remembering the aftermath of every one of his past failures, and dreading the fact he has to live through it again. Then, the tweets begin to pop up.
if John Shuster is the best the US can do at finding a curling skip FOR THE LAST 12 YEARS we should really just give up on the sport— J.R. Lind (@jrlind) February 15, 2018
A seemingly average guy—he has worked as a bartender and used to manage a restaurant, now he works for Dick’s Sporting Goods—Shuster is thrust onto the national stage every four years, and every four years, he has publicly disappointed. But locked deep inside him has been a tremendous talent, the one that has sent him back to the Olympics time after time even as every beer leaguer in America has called for his head. Now, finally, he’s showing it.
Shuster is America’s greatest curler. He has represented Team USA in four straight Olympics: He was a part of the 2006 team that won bronze, the first and only American curling medal in Olympic history. Back then, he played as the lead—the player who takes the first two shots in each end—but he wanted more. He left Pete Fenson’s team to become his own skip—the team’s captain, strategic guide, and typically the player who takes the final two shots in each end that determine how many points are won or lost. Olympic curling teams are not all-star teams—the team that wins curling trials makes the Olympics as a team—so Shuster broke up the most successful American Olympic team ever. Fenson compared Shuster’s move to “a wide receiver in the NFL saying he wants to be the quarterback.”
Since becoming a skip, he has won all three Olympic trials he has competed in. In his four world championship appearances as a skip, he has never finished worse than fifth. By comparison, the three most recent American performances not involving Shuster produced ninth-, eighth-, and 10th-place finishes in the 12-team championships. At the 2016 world championships in Switzerland, Shuster and the Americans reached the podium, winning bronze. He’s not just America’s best; he’s one of the best curlers on the planet.
But in the Olympics, he’s struggled immensely. In the 2010 Vancouver Games, Shuster’s awful shooting led to an 0-4 start for his squad, at which point the team’s coaches made the unusual decision to bench the team’s hypothetical best player for an alternate curler. The team got its first win in Shuster’s first game on the bench, but still finished in last place. He was eventually allowed to retake his spot in the lineup, but as the team’s third—the player who shoots the fifth and sixth shots in each end, not the final two. In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, his team went 2-7, finishing second-to-last. Curlers are graded on every shot; Shuster finished the 2010 games with the worst percentage mark of any skip and finished the 2014 games second-to-worst.
USA Curling decided it had had enough of Shuster. In 2014, the organization began its first High Performance Program to train athletes for international competition, and opted not to invite the man who had just led the past two Olympic teams. (Led them to failure, but still: led them.) Shuster began his road to redemption. He lost 30 pounds, and crafted a team of three other rejected players. They won the national championship over teams that were invited to the High Performance Program, and won last year’s Olympic trials.
Shuster feeds off his ego: He couldn’t be a role player on someone else’s team; he couldn’t handle USA Curling telling him he wasn’t good enough. And he always backs up his self-belief—until the Olympics.
He began the Pyeongchang Games with more failures. When Italy, an unheralded team whose only previous Olympic curling appearance came when it earned an automatic spot as the host in 2006, piled four stones in a scoring position, Shuster had two throws to disperse the mess. He failed to move any of Italy’s stones, allowing the Italians to score five points in one end, a total still tied for the highest-scoring end of the tournament. He slammed his broom to the ice in frustration. Team USA rallied, but lost 10-9.
Later in the tournament against Sweden, Shuster played aggressively instead of just trying to remove three Swedish stones in scoring position. But he missed the scoring area entirely, allowing Sweden to score four points instead. Team USA managed only four points in the whole game.
Against Japan, Shuster failed to score in three straight ends despite having the last throw (or “hammer”) in each, allowing Japan to take a 4-0 lead. Shuster’s three teammates were all deemed to have success rates in the 80s; Shuster earned a 54, the second-worst mark from any player in any game in the tournament. Team USA lost 8-2.
Against Norway, Shuster had the miss you saw at the beginning of this piece: Tapping Norway’s stone in any direction would have given Team USA two points; if Shuster got his stone to bounce off Norway’s stone and stay in scoring position, it would have given the Americans three. He missed the opposing stone entirely. But it got worse from there: The Americans gave up three points in the next end, and Shuster misses led to stolen points in the next two ends. Norway won 8-5; here is Shuster’s face after allowing a second consecutive steal:
This was the Shuster we’d seen in the past two Olympics. Some call the abysmal performance “Shustering.”
The Shustering has begun!— Chris Pendley (@graysnail) February 14, 2018
Regret to inform that a massive Shustering has occurred— nah. (@joshcvt) February 18, 2018
Each Olympiad, we have seen Shuster’s ego shattered. “The sport I loved just caused me so much pain and agony,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Was it worth all the sacrifices I made?” Shuster said he “could read mean tweets for three hours from 2010 and not read the same tweet twice.”
Critics of curling knock the lack of physical exertion, but to make up for it, every competitor’s mental battle is on full display. Curlers are mic’d up during play, so we can hear the thought processes that go into each shot. (I don’t know how there hasn’t been an Olympic Swearing Curler Incident.) Sometimes, Shuster seems not to have confidence in his shot, needing his teammates to talk through strategies at length before he can decide on anything. Sometimes, he’s too confident, overriding the suggestions of his teammates before launching shots he can’t land. We can hear his frenzied screams when he realizes a shot has missed.
And Shuster doesn’t have any place to hide. Lugers or downhill skiers can complete their entire Olympic performances in under five minutes. Curling teams compete in a nine-game round robin, each game lasting up to two hours. Shuster gets more airtime than any other Olympian, and that has meant hours and hours of televised suffering.
After losing four of his team’s first six games, we could have expected more missed shots and blank stares. Another loss would have eliminated the team from competition. Yet with his back against the wall, Shuster has played better than ever, winning back-to-back-to-back games to send Team USA to the semifinals for the first time in 12 years.
Against Canada, the team that has won three straight Olympic gold medals, Shuster’s team forced an 11th, sudden-death end and had the last shot to win the game. We should have expected him to somehow hurl a stone all the way to Pyeongchang’s ski jumping hill. Instead, he looped in a perfect shot that evaded every Canadian guard, knocked out the stone that would have won Canada the game, and stuck for an American win.
Shuster misses the guard by a hair to pull off the upset over Canada. The boys still have life. And How about the fist pump from the big fella!! pic.twitter.com/OInNlWw09W— Michael Garr (@Garr_) February 19, 2018
Afterward, Shuster broke down in tears in the middle of his interview with NBC, forcing his interviewer to awkwardly pivot and turn the interview to one of Shuster’s teammates. Against Switzerland, Shuster shot 97 percent, the second-best mark of any skip in the tournament. Against Great Britain, Shuster helped the Americans steal four points when their Scottish foes had the hammer in the eighth end, causing the Brits to concede the match two ends early. Team USA is now in the semifinals; just one win in its final two games will double America’s all-time curling medal total.
Curling doesn’t require stereotypical physical fitness, but it does call for tremendous mental acuity and an unbelievable talent to do one specific thing brilliantly. And so we have Shuster, a schlubby, emotional dude who can somehow spin a heavy rock so that it stops exactly where he wants (most of the time). May he sweep aside the haters and his doubts and drop this incredibly weighty career of his exactly where it needs to go.