GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- About a week ago, the U.S. men's curling team was dead on the ice sheet. A 5-8 loss to Norway in round-robin play left the U.S. with a 2-4 record and three basically must-win matches to go. U.S. skip John Shuster, thinking he had authored yet another Olympic implosion, walked with his family through the Olympic Park while his wife tried to convince him not to give up.
Eventually he sat down in the grass, looked around him and thought, "This is silly. This is the Olympics. I feel like I'm getting my heart broken by this sport, and it's just silly." He says he went to bed that night and woke up the next morning and saw the story of U.S. speedskater Dan Jansen, who endured years of shock defeats in the Olympics only to win the final Olympic race of his career.
From then on, Shuster and his team ("Team Reject," as Shuster jokingly called them, referencing their exclusion from USA Curling's High Performance Program after a disappointing showing at Sochi) of Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner won five straight, culminating in today's shocking victory over top-ranked Sweden to give the U.S. its second-ever medal in curling, its first since earning bronze at the 2006 Turin games and its first gold medal in the sport.
A large and loud U.S. contingent gave the arena a home-game feel. Near the conclusion of the second end, Ivanka Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders entered the curling center, and members of the U.S. gold-medal-winning women's hockey team were in attendance as well.
The all-around play in the match was excellent, with both sides making difficult shots to repeated oohs and aahs from the crowd. It was a delicately poised contest throughout, with neither side holding anything more than a two-point lead until the eighth end, when an aggressive and poised double-takeout shot by Shuster cleared out the Swedish stones in the house and earned the U.S. a five-point end -- the second-highest in Olympic gold-medal-match history.
The 10-5 lead proved insurmountable with only two ends remaining.
"I was happy to make that last shot for all of these guys and all the shots they made throughout the game and throughout this week," Shuster said, lavishing praise on his compatriots. Later, he continued, "I'll never stop thanking these guys for what they did for me as teammates and as friends."
Sweden's skip, Niklas Edin, is one of the best curlers in the world. In 2013, he became the first man to lead a team to victory in European and World championships in the same season, and he and his squad had a record of 8-2 coming into the gold-medal game. But today, every time he played a precise takeout or gentle draw, Shuster would answer on the following end.
And in the eighth, Shuster had the last word. Edin said that he knew it was over then, and that he and his team only continued to play in the ninth and into the 10th to calm themselves down. They conceded with two stones remaining in the match.
Afterward, Edin was willing to have a laugh, but he was clearly still smarting from the upset. "They had nothing to lose, and we had everything to lose," he said. "Over the day, they played better than us, but over the whole tournament, I thought we were the way stronger team."
For Shuster, the failures that have dogged his obvious talent are wiped away. There's no need to hedge now; he's the greatest curler in U.S. history.
"Since the day the 2014 Olympics came to an end, every moment was with this journey in mind," said Shuster.
Vice-skip Tyler George, growing emotional, said of Shuster's vindication: "I'm happy for John. He never has to make a shot again in his life to love the game."