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Column: American curling team creates a new ‘Miracle on Ice’

February 24, 2018

Gold medal winners from left: United States' curlers Joe Polo, John Landsteiner, Matt Hamilton, Tyler George, John Shuster and captain Phill Drobnick celebrate during the men's curling venue ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Move over, Mike Eruzione.

You’ve got company.

John Shuster delivered another Miracle on Ice for the Americans, only this one came with brooms instead of hockey sticks.

For one day, at least, the United States is a curling nation.

The team that became a cultural phenomenon back home — hey, even Mr. T is a fan — delivered the ultimate prize on the biggest stage, capturing the gold medal with a riveting upset of Sweden.

Enough with the jokes about sweeping and rocks and a bunch of beer-swilling guys playing a game better suited for a pub.

This sport is like any other at the Winter Olympics — played by highly-trained athletes who care deeply about their craft, filled with stories of dreams and disappointment and redemption.

Look no further than Shuster, who delivered the shot of a lifetime Saturday to essentially clinch the title with two full ends — like innings, for those of us who need an explainer in baseball-like terms — still to go.

He glided along the ice on a knee, deftly let go of the rock, and watched it send two Swedish stones careening away from the target circle. The Americans wound up with the five closest rocks to the bulls-eye, a five-point round that is essentially unheard of at this level of competition.

Only one other team, perennial power Canada, has ever delivered a higher-scoring end in a gold-medal match at the Olympics.

But for the uninitiated — essentially, all of us — Shuster said it was one of the easiest shots he’s ever had, thanks to the work of his three teammates and a high-risk attempt by the Swedes that missed the mark by about an inch.

“During the entire end, I felt it building,” Shuster said. “Their margin for error got incredibly small.”

When it came time for the American skip to deliver the last of eight rocks, he had no doubt what was going to happen.

“I can’t tell you how un-nervous I was sitting in the hack to throw it,” Shuster said.

Just like that, the match went from a 5-5 tie to a 10-5 lead for the Americans.

The Swedes knew they were done, spending the last two ends simply playing for pride and working off their frustration. On the final throw, Niklas Edin did a little spin to entertain the crowd and concede the match.

The final: United States 10, Sweden 7 .

“We played the rest of the game to get rid of the worst of the frustrations we were feeling inside,” Edin said. “Maybe we can get off the ice, do our interviews and get the silver medal without throwing it into the sea. Really, it was just to compose ourselves. We wanted to stay out there a little longer to calm down a bit and say good things.”

While nothing will ever compare to the real Miracle on Ice — a bunch of college kids beating the mighty Soviets in hockey at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, with Eruzione scoring the winning goal — this will rank right up there in the curling world.

The Americans had captured only one medal in Olympic competition (a bronze in 2006) and they weren’t viewed as a medal contender at the Pyeongchang Games. Especially when they lost four of their first six matches in group play, putting the team on the brink of elimination.

It looked like another disappointment for Shuster, who is competing in his fourth Olympics.

Yeah, he was part of that bronze medal-winning squad in Turin, but he’d been dealt much more heartache by the Winter Games. He skipped the 2010 team that lost seven of nine matches. He skipped again in 2014 when the U.S. posted the same dismal mark. His Olympic career appeared over when he didn’t even get picked for the U.S. high-performance program, which was supposed to provide the next Olympic foursome.

Shuster kept going, joining up with Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Tyler George to form a team that still proved to be America’s best.

“Team Reject,” they called themselves.

When they got to South Korea, it looked like the same old story. Shuster even began to doubt himself when an 8-5 loss to Norway left the Americans on the verge of missing the playoff round.

“I walked my family all the way to the farthest fan entrance to put them on bus,” he recalled. “I let my wife say everything she could possibly say to talk me off ledge. I don’t think I said much. Then I sat on a grassy knoll and looked around at all the Olympic venues. I said to myself, ‘You’re getting your heart broken by this sport, but this is silly. Seriously. This is the Olympics.’”

He slept well that night for the first time in days.

The next morning, he happened to read a story on Facebook about speedskater Dan Jansen, who shook off disappointment and tragedy to win a gold medal in his final Olympic race.

The Americans didn’t lose again.

As the wins piled up, these guys began to draw more and more attention back home. Mr. T stayed up ’til all hours of the night to watch. NFL stars Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt tweeted their support.

They’ll never really know how much it meant to Shuster and his teammates .

“I think curling really has a chance of taking off in our country,” he said. “It’s really just an incredible group of people. Always welcoming and really, I think, embodies what all of us would hope humanity can be. That’s caring for each other and being compassionate with your fellow people around you. That’s what curling embodies. I’m really happy to share that with the world.”

Well, he’s got at least one new fan.

This one.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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For more AP Olympic coverage: https://www.wintergames.ap.org

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