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Why USA's John Shuster leaves Winter Olympics with a smile despite going without a medal | Opinion

USA TODAY
USA TODAY
 2022-02-18

BEIJING – The moment that forever changed John Shuster’s curling life did not occur in his legendary five-point end against Sweden four years ago in Pyeongchang or on the podium with the gold medal draped around his neck .

In fact, it happened a week earlier at the lowest point of that Olympic run, when the U.S. team was 2-4 in round robin play and seemingly all but finished. Shuster had long been the face of the sport in America, winning a bronze medal in his first Games at age 23 then becoming skipper for the next two Olympic cycles, both of which went horribly for the U.S.

Facing another curling disaster in Korea, Shuster was beside himself. Finally, after a pep talk from his wife, he walked back through the parking lot and got his epiphany while looking at the curling venue from a grassy knoll.

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John Shuster (USA) competes during the Beijing Winter Olympics. Michael Madrid, USA TODAY Sports

“I thought, 'This is silly,’” he said back then. “I’m getting my heart broken by this sport. And this is silly.”

Shuster hasn’t viewed curling the same way since. The losses don’t hit wreck him like they used to. He isn’t living and dying with every result. He will never again, he says, beat himself up for a bad shot.

“It’s something that hasn’t left me,” he said Friday. “And it’s not going to leave me for the rest of my life.”

In 2018, Shuster’s emotional reset framed the stunning turnaround that led to a gold medal. Four years later, it frames a much different, less satisfying, result.

In the span of 20 hours here, Team Shuster lost to Great Britain and Canada and will head home this time without a medal of any color . In the semifinals and yet again in the bronze medal match, they faced opponents who played much better in the pressure moments.

In 2018, whenever Shuster needed to come up with something magical, he delivered. This time, he couldn’t. It really was just that simple.

“This is a game where the miss is a spectrum,” said Matt Hamilton, who was right alongside Shuster in each of the last two Olympics. “It’s not always like make or miss. Sometimes, it’s like a half shot. Whenever we had a half shot, it seemed like they followed it with a totally made shot and that’s the difference -- being clutch at the right time.”

Even if you can’t differentiate a draw from a takeout, that’s a universal, easily identifiable concept in sports. And Shuster’s penchant for constantly living just on either side of that edge, his willingness to take viewers along for that ride as he’s often loudly narrating everything he’s seeing and feeling during a game, has made him arguably the most identifiable Winter Olympian that America has to offer.

Shuster, who was chosen as the American flag bearer for the opening ceremony here, will not get a whirlwind victory tour like he had after 2018. But he’s also unlikely to disappear from our lives.

Though he’s already participated in five Olympic Games, Shuster is just 39 years old. Though it’s hard to say exactly how old is too old for a high-level curler, he has at least proven this much: He’s still among the elite in his sport, he’s still the best the U.S. has to offer, and he’s probably going to be back for a sixth Olympics in 2026.

“I’m still enjoying it,” Shuster said. “I know we’re one of the top teams in the world and representing my country is a tremendous honor. We have total support of our families and that kind of thing, so, yeah, we’ll keep playing.”

After Team Shuster unceremoniously bombed out of the 2014 Olympics, USA Curling famously instituted a so-called high-performance program to groom and promote new talent. They also, to be blunt, wanted to find a replacement for Shuster after back-to-back duds on the world stage.

That never happened. Since then, Shuster has only become even more synonymous with the re-emergence of curling every four years for the American audience. In a sense, he is the sport in the United States.

The interesting part is how that will evolve over the next few Olympic cycles because the world has undoubtedly pushed curling to places it’s never been before. New powerhouses like 27-year-old Bruce Mouat, who leads the team from Great Britain, are younger and already very, very good. If Shuster wants to make another run at an Olympic medal, the U.S. will have to improve, too.

“You can look at the percentages all the teams are shooting here, it’s just higher,” Shuster said. “The level of play in my five Olympic cycles has only increased every single time. It’s fun, and it’s also frustrating, obviously. But it’s fun to see our sport growing and getting better.”

Will that trend be fun forever? It’s hard to say because this Olympics was a little bit of a free roll for Team Shuster. With the glow of 2018 still around them like a halo, they played loose. They took big chances when games got tight. With a gold medal in their back pockets, Shuster didn’t play it safe or get down on himself when things didn’t go well.

“If you have people you enjoy traveling with and hanging around with, like, the curling is a bonus and winning at curling is an even bigger bonus,” he said.

When you’ve already got one gold medal in your back pocket, you get a lifetime of bonuses. The old Shuster might have thought of fourth place as a failure. This time, his smile leaving the arena wasn’t as big as it was four years ago. But it was a smile nonetheless.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why USA's John Shuster leaves Winter Olympics with a smile despite going without a medal | Opinion

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