How the US Curling Team Won Its First Gold Medal
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The United States men’s curling team celebrated making Olympic history by raising their brooms aloft and pumping their fists as friends and family filled Gangneung Curling Center with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
The Americans, just days removed from facing elimination in round robin play, stormed past Sweden, 10-7, on Saturday afternoon to win the country’s first gold medal in curling.
The U.S. closed out the tournament with five straight victories, including two against mighty Canada, before stunning Sweden, the top-ranked team in the world.
The effort was led by John Shuster, a four-time Olympian who, just four years ago, in the wake of a disastrous showing at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, was booted from the country’s high-performance program. But he climbed his way all the way back, through the national ranks, through the Olympic trials, and through countless obstacles here in South Korea.
On Saturday, Shuster delivered the game-changing shot when he cleared two Swedish stones with his final rock of the eighth end to score five points. It was a perfect curling shot: a blend of cool-handed finesse and foolproof strategy. The Swedes needed a miracle in the final two ends to steal a victory. They did not come close.
Shuster, a bronze medalist at the 2006 Olympics, was joined by his four teammates — Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo, who served as the team’s alternate — atop the medal podium as the American flag was raised to the rafters.
Here’s how it happened:
1st End: Sweden Keeps the Hammer
Following warm-ups and the ceremonial blaring of bagpipes (curling is a Scottish game), both teams have hit the ice. There is a huge contingent of American fans in the building, and some of them may have had refreshments this afternoon. Anyway, amid cheers of “U-S-A” and “Shoooooo” for John Shuster, the American skip, the Swedish team took the hammer in the first end, owing to their top seed in the tournament, and preserved it for the second end with a blank, meaning nobody scored.
Oh, the hammer? Glad you asked. The hammer belongs to the team that gets to throw the last rock in an end, which is a huge tactical advantage. A team keeps the hammer until it scores.
As a special treat, we’ll be joined here by Devin Heroux of CBC Sports, a curling aficionado who will offer his incisive analysis. Devin suddenly has some spare time on his hands because Canada — well, Canada didn’t do so hot here. More on that later.
Devin Heroux: These two teams are playing in their first-ever gold medal game at the Olympics. We’ll see how USA and Sweden handle this new territory and the pressure of the moment.
Swedish skip Nik Edin has won world championships and knows big game pressure. American skip John Shuster has been around the sport for a long time, including winning bronze with Pete Fenson’s team at the 2006 Olympics.
Expect these first couple ends (maybe more) to be wide open as both teams get a feel for the ice and calm their nerves. It should also be pointed out that Edin likes to play an open style of curling and pounce on opposition mistakes — the Americans haven’t made many in their five game winning streak.
2nd End: Sweden Makes Shuster Pay for Miss
We’re seeing some high-level curling from both sides. The Swedes packed the second end with exquisite shotmaking, and when John Shuster misfired on a double takeout with his last stone of the end, Nik Edin took advantage, scoring two for Sweden. Edin is widely regarded as the best skip in the world for a reason. Opponents pay for making mistakes against him.
Also, Ivanka Trump is here with a swarm of secret service personnel.
Devin Heroux: Edin learned how to curl by watching past Canadian curling championship games on VHS tapes while growing up in Sweden. In fact, his favorite curler to watch was Kevin Martin. He studied his strategy and learned the game by watching tapes over and over.
Edin moved his team to Canada two years ago for a year to practice in the curling-crazed nation and compete against the top teams there. His team is fully-funded by the Swedish government to curl. This is their full-time job, to curl and win a gold medal at the Olympics.
3rd End: Americans Tie Match, 2-2
Tyler George, the American vice skip who wears really ratty sneakers, made two outstanding shots to set up Shuster, who came through in a huge way: a double takeout on his last throw to score two for the Americans and tie the match. More chants of “U-S-A!” are filling this place.
Throughout their run here, the members of the American team have given huge credit to Dr. Carly Anderson, who came on as U.S.A. Curling’s sports psychologist after their dismal showing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“We’ve had team meetings where we’re kind of slumping, and she’s just tough on us,” Matt Hamilton said in an interview before the start of the Olympics. “She’ll tell us, ‘You guys have to pull your heads out of your butts!’ She’ll tell it how it is.”
Anderson has worked with the players in individual and group sessions. A huge emphasis, she said, has been developing strategies to help them execute in pressure situations. So far, so good.
Devin Heroux: In this third end, it was all about placement of stones and getting the proper angles. Edin changed the end around by making a double and rolling perfectly. This is how precise the game has become. But a slight error by Edin on his last rock allowed Shuster a tough double takeout and he threw his rock perfectly to score two.
Sweden likes low-scoring battles. They wait for their opponents to crack. The USA has hung tough with teams throughout this Olympic competition. We’ll see how Shuster and his team handles the added pressure of this game, though. Sweden is the top-ranked team in the world right now. USA has the ability to play a simple style of curling but can also complicate the game and draw opponents into making mistakes. Many curlers in the game say Shuster has the ability to single-handedly win a curling game because of his shotmaking brilliance. He’ll need to do that today to propel the Americans to their first gold at the Olympics.
4th End: Americans Steal a Point
“Yep! Yep! Whoa! Whoa!” This is the soundtrack being provided at the moment by the Americans, who are putting all sorts of pressure on the Swedes. After a measurement, the United States stole a point (Sweden had the hammer) to take their first lead of the match. This is heady stuff for John Shuster and his teammates. It sounds as if all of Duluth is here at Gangneung Curling Centre, and these people are screaming.
The measurement stick is a tool that’s used when it’s impossible to tell with the naked eye which rock is closest to the button.
Devin Heroux: It was textbook American curling in the 4th end. Shuster and his team love to complicate the game and force their opponents into making mistakes. And that’s exactly what happened. Edin had a bad miss with his first. Shuster applied more pressure and on Edin’s last throw he was a little heavy and wide giving up a steal to the Americans.
What’s important about this steal is now the Swedes have last rock in the odd ends. Americans want to force Sweden to a single point in the 5th end and try to keep the last rock in the 6th, 8th and 10th and final end. That’s how they’ll try to play this game out, to have last rock advantage for the last shot of the game.
5th End: Sweden Leads at the Break
John Shuster was heavy on his last stone, which flashed the house, meaning it rolled straight through without touching anything, and Sweden capitalized, scoring two to regain the lead as we head into the fifth-end break. (That’s halftime to you football fans.) The pressure is mounting.
But remember: The Americans won four straight matches heading into this final. Their chemistry has never been better. Also, Mr. T told them to win. I pity the fool who disappoints Mr. T.
Devin Heroux: It was more textbook American curling in the 5th end — cluttered, confusing and messy, which is exactly how this team wins games. Shuster likes a lot of rocks in play and loves to put pressure on his opponents. Sweden has fallen into the trap and are struggling to escape it. When Shuster has a lead, he plays with tremendous confidence.
But the game can be unforgiving. Shuster was heavy on his last shot and Edin made a perfect draw shot to score two points. It takes eight made shots to score in this game. Shuster missed one. Edin didn’t.
6th End: Shuster Makes Edin Pay for Mistake
Niklas Edin, the Swedish skip, missed just to the left on his second-to-last throw of the end, leaving an American stone in the house. It was a small but significant blunder, and Edin doesn’t usually make small but significant blunders. The Americans are getting their opportunities, and John Shuster made two solid shots to ultimately score two. The United States pulls back ahead.
Devin Heroux: When you get to this level of curling, the slightest error can be the difference. Edin missed a tough run back takeout on his first shot, allowing the Americans to put two rocks in the house.
Edin tried a hit and roll on his last shot and missed again. Shuster made him pay with a perfect draw shot and a score of two.
One of the big things to consider is how the teams read the ice throughout the game. The ice conditions change throughout the game due to rocks sliding over and over the ice. It can also change because of the body heat in the building, creating frost on the ice. The players have to adapt. The teams that are able to do this first win the game.
7th End: Sweden’s Edin Feeling the Pressure
Niklas Edin, the finest curler in the world, appears to be feeling that Olympic pressure. After another huge miss with his first shot of the seventh end, he bounced back to save a point for Sweden with the hammer, tying the score. But the United States is in great shape, with the hammer heading to the eighth — and on track to have it in the 10th.
John Shuster is more than deserving of the accolades he’s gotten during this bonspiel (curling talk for tournament), but his teammates have been outstanding. Matt Hamilton, the mustachioed social media hero for the Americans, executed a brilliant double takeout in the middle of the seventh end. And Tyler George, whose shots set up Shuster at the back of each end, has been one of the sharpest players on the ice.
Devin Heroux: Curling is one of few sports where adrenaline can be a bad thing — curlers have to calm their nerves and settle down before throwing big shots. Right now it looks like this young Swedish team is letting their nerves and adrenaline get the better of them. They are missing routine shots. Edin said that was his one concern, that they would let the pressure of the moment get to them.
Edin, however, has been here before in these pressure games and made one of the more remarkable shots of the Olympic tournament to score a single in the 7th end. It’s a shot that might have saved the game for his team. But Shuster’s team looks calm and confident with three ends left to decide this gold medal game.
8th End: Americans Pile on Five Points
John Shuster just nailed the most important shot in American curling history: a double takeout for five points and a seemingly insurmountable lead for the Americans entering the ninth end. The gold is all but theirs. The crowd is going bananas.
Devin Heroux: The Americans have been putting pressure on Sweden the entire game. You could see it and sense it in the building. The pressure was on and in the 8th end Sweden cracked.
A massive score of five in the 8th end by the United States has all but sealed this victory for a team that was once in jeopardy of missing the Olympic curling playoffs all together. It is a remarkable story about how this Shuster team never stopped believing and are now narrowing in on the country’s first gold medal in curling.
9th End: Sweden Gets Two Back
The United States, playing conservatively, gave up two to Sweden here in the ninth end, but still has a 10-7 lead (and the hammer) entering the 10th and final end. It would take a meltdown of intergalactic proportions for John Shuster & Co. to lose this match.
Devin Heroux: John Shuster has curled for a very long time. He’s had some serious low points throughout his career. But he never stopped playing the game he loves. He has kids now. He talks about them often and how different his perspective is in life and curling.
This is his moment now. He’s a few rocks away from being the first-ever Olympic curling champion from the United States, alongside his team.
10th End: Sweden Goes Down Quietly
Devin Heroux: It is one of the more improbable comebacks in the history of curling — and perhaps sports.
Team Shuster was on the ropes and seemingly down and out at the Olympics. With a 2-4 record and three games left in the tournament, Shuster couldn’t afford to lose another game. The team got on a roll and started believing they could win it all. That belief propelled them to wins over the Canadian curling juggernauts and then over the number one ranked team in the world, Sweden, to capture Olympic gold.
It’s an historic win. The country’s first. But how they did it is even more incredible.