PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The gold medal was unofficially won in an epic eighth end, when American skip John Shuster threw the hammer for a double knockout, giving his United States curling team five stones.
Go ahead and give yourself a gold medal if you understood that sentence.
Or at least if you did prior to these 2018 Winter Olympics.
But neophytes we should be no more, not after Shuster and his band of merry curlers put an incredible American exclamation point on these last two days of competition, shocking the Swedes in the gold-medal match only days after shocking the Canadians in the semifinals, bringing home gold in a sport that had as many last-place Olympic finishes in its history as it did medals: One.
Yet here they are now, after a rousing 10-7 victory over the Swedes, after being led by players who’d been kicked out of the national program for lack of success following a second consecutive flameout in Sochi 2014, after rebanding and rebranding themselves as the self-titled Rejects and earning their way back onto Team USA, after nearly slinking out of yet another Olympic Games with a 2-4 start here in PyeongChang, after rebounding with three straight wins that included a medal-round-or-bust victory over world power Canada.
Here they are now, after pushing their way into the gold-medal match with wins over Great Britain and again over Canada, after hanging with the favored Swedes through seven ends before Shuster busted it open, ready to greet a great American morning with newfound gold and newfound fame. Here is John Shuster, his fourth Olympics finally delivering on his lifelong dream, never again to be cast as a curling failure, never again forced to turn off social media just to avoid the vitriol.
Because from here on out, Shuster takes his rightful place in one of the best sports narratives we know, the one that sees a man refuse to give up on what he loves, even after it tears his heart out, who fights like hell to rediscover what made him love it in the first place, then channels that love into the best performance of his life. Shuster is a living example of how freeing it can be to let go of anger, let go of frustration, let go of pressure, and have some fun.
Are you listening Hollywood? Shuster may insist that dramatic final shot in the eighth end was dramatic only to those who don’t really know the sport (raising my hand), who didn’t know the victory was already a fait accompli, but here’s one for ignorance, because from where the neophytes stood, that moment was awesome.
“I was happy to get a chance to make that last one for these guys, all the shots they made throughout the course of the week and throughout the course of this game,” Shuster said. “What an exclamation point. [That shot] for me was just focus. The level of difficulty of that shot compared to the shots we’d made was incredibly less difficult. I can’t tell you how un-nervous I was, sitting in the hack to throw it. These guys around me, their belief and hard work, gave me confidence. Just sit in the hack and let it go. I know if any of the other guys had that shot they would have done it also.”
The glossary of curling, for those wondering, defines the hack as “similar to a starting block in track and field, the foothold device where the person who throws the rock pushes off for delivery.”
A little more about that language. A curling game works in a frame of 10 ends, somewhat akin to innings in baseball. Essentially, the teams of four curlers get eight stones apiece, and compete by throwing alternate stones against each other, with the aim of finishing the end with the stone (or stones) closest to the center button. There is an advantage to throwing the last stone of the round, which is called the hammer. The number of your stones left inside all of the other teams stones count for a point each. A one-point round is good. Two? Very good.
Five? Almost unheard of.
And in this case, insurmountable. “For sure, he’s going to make that double and we knew we were going to lose,” Swedish skip Niklas Eden said. “I think they have a lot of fun, they take it easy so to speak, they have a lot of spirit . . . They had nothing to lose and we had everything to lose.”
And so does the American Olympic effort end on a fantastic, if unexpected high note, capping off a sport that made its official Olympic debut in 1998, and only feels like it has been waged continuously since then. Play here in PyeongChang opened on Thursday, Feb. 8 with mixed doubles round-robin play, and wasn’t scheduled to wrap up until the Games’ final day, with the women’s gold-medal match. In between, there was a doping scandal, stripping a Russian mixed pair of its bronze medal, there was national embarrassment, with world leader Canada failing to medal in either the men’s or women’s bracket, there was a home team shocker, with South Korea’s women outlasting Japan in 11 frames to reach the gold-medal game, and there was chalk, with Sweden’s men reaching the gold-medal game too.
But more than anything, there was Team Shuster. And now there is Team Shuster forever, four guys who hold down jobs like liquor store managers and environmental engineers, who bring entire segments of their native Minnesota to South Korea, willing to make daily two-hour train commutes from Seoul to root them on, who manage to turn Twitter on with their charm, engaging the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Mr. T, Dan Jansen, and Kirstie Alley, and who now, after an epic eighth end, are gold-medal winners.