Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Redemption and Triumph of John Shuster

This is a rather difficult piece to write, if only because if you are interested in the sport of curling you know it already, and if you don't, but want to absorb the moral of the story, you have to be sufficiently not turned off by the fact that it is about, well, curling.

I did actually write about the sport already in the first week of the just-concluded Winter Olympics (here), but it was to excoriate the media for placing themselves above the competitors in importance ("Why didn't Matt Hamilton kiss the ring of The Katie Couric?"), not to discuss the competition itself.

It's time.

Once the mixed doubles completed, the men's and women's four-man teams, the more familiar structure to us quadrennial followers, began.  The men's competition consists of ten teams with a round-robin format where each team plays all the others.  The best four records go into a medal round, #1 plays #4, #2 plays #3, and the two winners play for the gold medal.

After six games of the round-robin, Team USA was 2-4 and virtually out of it.  Unfortunately this raised further groaning in the USA curling community and among fans about the "skip", or captain, John Shuster.  Although he had been on the Olympic bronze-medal USA team in 2006, his performance in 2010 and 2014 had been disastrous, missing key shots and his teams not getting close to the medal round.

After 2014, many assumed he would not be the skip for the 2018 team, and a "new generation" of curling talent would be recruited.  To make the 2018 Games, Shuster got in better physical condition, and would have to compete in the Olympic Trials.  There, while it was a hard road to win the right to take his team to PyeongChang, he did indeed win the Trials with his team and would skip for the USA in 2018.

I did not know any of that background.  Although my best girl and I watch curling religiously during the Olympics, it is very much constrained to the Olympics.  So we only watch every four years, and our love for the sport goes dormant between Olympics.  But we knew who John Shuster was, and I will say that when we started watching the men's team event and saw that Shuster was the skip, we were not thrilled to see him there.  After the 2-4 start, we thought it was 2010 and 2014 all over again.

We're just a couple in our 60s who watch curling for the Olympics.  Surely the people in the actual community of the sport were livid, or at least as livid as upper midwesterners get, seeing failure again -- and surely blaming Shuster for again not living up to what they thought USA curling should be.

And then it turned.

Needing to win three straight to have even a chance to make the medal round, Shuster and Team USA flipped on a switch and won all three.  This included a shocking win over Canada, where the sport is all over and at the next level after hockey (of course).  More importantly, when it came down to the last shots of an "end" (the "innings" of curling), Shuster's touch turned magical in those last three games, and shot after shot of his hit its target for vital points.

His touch continued through a semifinal win, a second one over Canada that guaranteed at least a silver medal and a finals match against Team Sweden.  By this time, John Shuster was no longer the pariah to casual curling fans (Aside -- in our house, the phrase directed to the TV was "Who are you and what have you done with John Shuster?").  His reputation might have been redeemed to this point, surely if he could at least make the gold-medal match close enough to be respectable.

John Shuster seems to be a good guy, a typical upper midwesterner not given to great outbursts of emotion and much like, for the most part, his teammates John Landsteiner and Tyler George (Matt Hamilton, the fourth, is a bit more animated).  You'd want to have a beer with Shuster, but after two you'd probably tell him he was terrible in 2014 and 2010.

I love a redemption story, and this was already one after seven ends of the gold-medal match with Sweden, with the teams tied 5-5.  We had taped the match, recorded at 3:00am Saturday, and were watching diligently with coffee first thing that morning, not knowing the outcome yet.

Team USA, playing the yellow stones, had four of its stones in the scoring area in the eighth end, but the Swedish skip's final shot had put their red stone closest to the center, where it would score.  Shuster, with the very last shot of the end, had to thread a shot through two others to get to the scoring area (the "house") to try to knock that closest red stone out of the house so the USA would score.  If the USA could knock out both of the red stones, though, it could have as many as five scoring stones still in the house and, with the end over, a five-point lead that would be impossible to overcome.

USA shot about to nail both red stones and clinch gold
What you see at right is the redemption of John Shuster.  The yellow stone in the red circle is actually in motion; it is Shuster's last shot, which a moment later struck the Swedes' scoring stone and would knock both it and the other red stone completely out of the house, leaving Team USA with a five for the end and, as curling works, a lock on the game -- and the gold medal.  Sweden scored two in the ninth, but conceded the gold with two shots to go in the tenth and no possibility of winning.
Shuster in the moment after his splendid, redeeming shot

At left is the look on John Shuster's face as that shot in the eighth end is just completed -- amazement, satisfaction, triumph, all rolled into one.  It looks like what a guy from Minnesota looks like when you tell him he just won a million dollars; in this case it is what a guy born in Minnesota looks like when his career has been redeemed by his own performance, in the situation a curler can only dream of having his career lead to.

It's not a lot of outward expression, but there was surely a lot going on inside.  There was perhaps a fairly subdued, redemptive expression on Shuster's face, but I can assure you that it was not a subdued group of Americans in the stands of that arena in PyeongChang, absolutely ecstatic at the shot and the imminent success of the American team, hugging, raising fists and screaming.  I can assure you that there were those in that group who had not had the greatest confidence in Shuster prior to the mid-course turnaround in the seventh game of the round robin.  I can assure you that in this house, there had been almost no confidence in him prior to that game.
Disbelieving USA fans relishing shot 

But like the Americans in the stands celebrating in the picture, and the screaming multitudes in the Duluth Curling Club, Shuster's home, it was an exciting day for this household.  I was ecstatic for Team USA, but as I said earlier, I love a good redemption story, and I could not have been happier that this team was skipped by someone who had known bitter defeat in two previous Olympics.

The closing ceremonies are behind us; the lackluster performance of the American figure skaters, the sport we all wait for in the Winter Olympics, helped depress the TV ratings to where the NBC people will have to end up refunding money to their advertisers.  They couldn't deliver the eyeballs (of course, perhaps others got tired of the pompous Katie Couric types and the fawning attention paid to gay and minority athletes, instead of just letting them be athletes and try their best without having to be symbols.

2018 Olympic Champion John Shuster
John Shuster, gold medal intact, will go home to Duluth and forever will be an Olympic Champion.  He will forever remember the memory of standing on the podium with his teammates, and being introduced as "Gold Medalist and Olympic Champion"; putting hand over heart and singing (as did all his teammates) our national anthem.  We will remember him saying how proud he was that he "became the skip his teammates deserved."

He will forever remember The Shot.  If he forgets it, he can just give me a call, as I still have the game on DVR and I'm going to make sure I can get it on YouTube before I would dare erase it.  I've watched that shot five times since, and I can tell you that when I watch it, I think less about the skill that it took, and far more about what it meant to the man who delivered it.

Congratulations, John Shuster.  You have taught your nation a lesson.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu or on Twitter at @rmosutton.

1 comment:

  1. For the record, Shuster was born in Chisholm, MN, known of course as the town of the medical practice of "Moonlight" Graham of "Field of Dreams" fame. Chisholm was the home of the mother of a dear friend of mine; the real Dr. Graham was actually her doctor way back when. But I digress.