USA Curling held their Olympic trials over the past weekend and officially have their teams for Pyeongchang in 2018. The women’s team will be led by Nina Roth alongside Tabitha Peterson, Aileen Geving, and Becca Hamilton, in the first Olympics for everyone on that team. On the men’s side, well, strap the heck in because John Shuster is back for the fourth straight time.
Is this really the best we can offer to the world? Yes, and that’s not all bad.
After winning bronze in 2006 as the lead for Team USA, Shuster was the focal point of skipping back-to-back disappointing finishes at the 2010 and 2014 Games, including a near-disaster where they almost didn’t qualify for Sochi. The women also fizzled, going 2-7, 2-7, and 1-8 in the last three Olympics despite strong finishes between Olympiads at world championships.
USA Curling decided to take a novel approach for 2018. Rather than simply fund whoever won the national championships, they would hand-pick their own national rosters and set a high bar for anyone else who dared become Team USA: Beat our best, get a good enough world ranking, and you can represent the country.
This approach pretty much shook up the women’s side. The U.S. had a great run in the 2000s with players such as Debbie McCormick, Erika Brown, Allison Pottinger, and Ann Swisshelm, winning the world championship in 2003 and taking silver in 2005 and 2006, along with a fourth-place finish in 2013. This past cycle, all the elite American women aged into their 40s and really weren’t on the Olympic radar, even though Brown won back-to-back national titles. USA Curling was laser-focused on cultivating three teams, two of which were far superior and met in the trials’ best-of-three championship: Team Nina Roth and Team Jamie Sinclair.
Roth and Sinclair had traded blows for the last two seasons, and the remarkably close teams ended up playing a best-of-three for the Olympic berth. The difference was a tense ninth and 10th ends where Sinclair stole two points after Roth made an uncharacteristic hog line violation. (Think of a foul in bowling. You have to let go of the rock by the first thick red line, and if you don’t, the handle’s sensor will flash red.) Roth needed two for the win and was set up by Peterson’s incredible runback:
Sinclair’s missed freeze attempt gave Roth two points and the 7-6 victory. They will be going to South Korea as probably the fifth- or sixth-best team by world rankings. Anywhere from a .500 finish to the podium is a reasonable goal, considering how they’ve played this year. Case in point: Team Roth picked up one of the biggest victories in a decade by any American curling team, winning the Canada Inns Women’s Classic in Winnipeg last month. In that event, Roth’s team downed three of the top five-ranked teams en route to the victory: Team Silvana Tirinzoni (who will represent Switzerland at the Olympics), Team Jennifer Jones (2014's Olympic gold winner and the favorite to represent Canada again), and Team Anna Hasselborg (the current top-ranked team and Sweden’s delegate to Pyeongchang).
Back to Shuster. After a 2-7 finish in Sochi, he needed to earn his way back in the good graces of the national program. Ultimately the High Performance Program passed on him in 2014, though his second, Jared Zezel, made it. Shuster’s vice skip Jeff Isaacson then stepped away from the competitive game, leaving him and his lead, John Landsteiner, to fend for themselves.
In retrospect, the snub was the kick in the pants Shuster needed to get serious with his game and fitness level. He teamed up with former rival skip Tyler George and former world junior champion Matt Hamilton and hit the curling circuit. All Team Shuster did in their first year was bust down the door with a national championship and a berth to worlds, where they finished fifth. After the first season, the HPP added them to their roster, and would proceed to reach two more world championships with finishes of third and fourth.
That’s not to say that the High Performance teams underperformed. The team of Heath McCormick, Chris Plys, Korey Dropkin, and Tom Howell pushed Shuster to the brink and played out of their goddamned minds as they won the first game of their best-of-three. History has shown that Shuster plays his best when his ass is up against the wall. Team Shuster won the second game 9-4 with everyone shooting over 90 percent. In game three, the fireworks began early:
Despite another inspired game from McCormick, Shuster escaped with a 7-5 win on this hit and stick that almost didn’t stick in classic Shuster fashion:
Shuster’s road back to the podium is still a long one. The U.S. men are ranked fifth as a country (up from eighth at the last Olympics), but will face six or seven individual teams ranked higher than his on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit. It’s completely understandable to not want to buy into the Shuster hype a third time. He’ll just have to earn it again.
Matt Sussman is a sort-of-competitive curler from Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.