Meet the unlikely, unfazed and unparalleled gold medalists of U.S. Olympic curling

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – If you want to compete against some gold medal winners, all you need to do is get yourself to league night at the Duluth Curling Club. You know the place, it’s right off Railroad Street, behind the cinema.

Or you could meet some of them at their places of work … such as an area Dick’s Sporting Goods store or a local liquor store. Or you could try to endear yourself to at least one of them by growing out a classic Upper Midwest mustache and talking up the Green Bay Packers.

John Shuster, Tyler George, John Landsteiner and Matt Hamilton won the gold medal in men’s curling here Saturday, defeating Sweden 10-7 and completing a story so wonderfully humble and honestly fun that Hollywood executives will be holding meetings all week asking a question they never thought they’d ever ask … can really make a movie about a team of curlers?

If not these guys, then never.

There’s John Shuster, the skip, a former bartender who now works at Dick’s and, after a ninth-place finish at the Sochi Olympics, was believed to be such a disappointing curler that USA Curling basically encouraged him to just retire rather than try to be here. He was also the skip of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team that finished 10th. He did win bronze as the lead at the 2006 Turin Games and had committed himself to one day “sing my national anthem and stand at the top of a podium.”

After those two disappointing finishes, though, USA Curling set up a new “high performance” program that would train a small group of promising curlers in hopes of no longer getting embarrassed. There was a tryout. Shuster, 35, didn’t make it despite being a three-time Olympian. Rather than take the hint, quit and just play for fun in Duluth, he formed a team of misfits to storm the curling castle.

He dubbed them “The Rejects” and then they went out and beat USA Curling’s chosen teams and wound up back at the Olympics.

There’s Tyler George, 35, who manages George’s Liquor in Duluth, you know the place, it’s in that strip mall by the university, behind the Arby’s and next to Baja Tanning. He cites Michael Jordan as his sporting hero.

There’s John Landsteiner, 27, who almost didn’t join the team because of work conflicts. He’s project manager for an engineering company. “I actually walked away for a few months,” Landsteiner said. “[For a few months] they kept coming to me, ‘you’ve got to play, you’ve got to play.'” He decided to carve out sometime for the fun of it.

And of course, there is Matt Hamilton, 29, who hails from Wisconsin and sports a wondrous mustache (even though his “wife hates it”). He curled with his sister Rebecca in the mixed doubles event earlier in the Games and proceeded to come in second to last. His stated goals in PyeongChang were to get more people back home to grow ‘staches like his and have Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweet at him.

At least the Rodgers part came true – “pulling for you and your mustache this Olympic Games. (B)ring home a medal to Wisconsin!!” Rodgers included #strongstachegame. Pretty soon J.J. Watt, Mr. T and whole bunch of others were tweeting at him.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it out on the ice,” Hamilton said.

(Getty)

They may be everymen, but in the eighth end of the gold medal match they pulled off a board that will go down in Olympic curling history. With the score tied 5-5, Shuster delivered the hammer, knocking two Swedish stones out of the way and posting a 5 spot. That’s like a late-inning grand slam in the seventh game of the World Series, although maybe more unlikely. It’s the second-highest total in one end in Olympic history.

While the final shot wasn’t particularly difficult, and just scoring two there would have all but assured victory, to hang a five in that moment is legendary. With a 10-5 lead and two ends remaining, the match was essentially over. “We knew we were going to lose,” said Niklas Edin, Sweden’s skip.

Eventually the Swedes would concede in the 10th frame and the U.S. won, 10-7.

“The Rejects” were champs. It was a remarkable run. They started 2-4 in pool play and appeared well on their way to another bottom-of-the-table finish. Then they shocked Canada, 9-7. Then beat Switzerland. Then Great Britain and suddenly they were in the knockout round. It was a good story, but they were supposed to lose to three-time defending gold medalist Canada. Instead they won. Then here they were supposed to lose to top-seeded Sweden, which went 7-2 in pool play, which won silver and bronze the last two Games.

Now they have a gold medal. Ivanka Trump even sat in the stands and watched. “Win. #powerofthestash” Rodgers tweeted.

“They have a lot of fun, they take it easy so to speak,” said Edin, who understandably isn’t really sure how they lost to these upstarts. “Over the game they were the better team. Over the whole tournament we were the way stronger team.”

That isn’t how they hand out the medals but he had a point. Shuster said after falling to 2-4 and staring at the likelihood of another humbling Olympics, he got a pep talk from his wife and then found a grassy hill outside the curling venue and sat alone, staring at it. Somewhere in there he found peace, got a good night’s sleep and rattled off a five-game win streak that ended in gold.

“You always think there’s a chance,” Shuster said. “From the day the 2014 Olympics came to an end every single day was with this journey in mind. I was extremely lucky these incredible guys went along with me.”

The no-one-believes-in-us underdogs. The have-fun ethos. The improbable win streak. The Duluth Curling Club back home filled for the middle of the night broadcast of the match, with the booze flowing. Maybe no one saw this coming. Maybe we should have seen this coming.

So how do the Rejects, the U.S. men’s curling team, the Olympic champions, celebrate a gold medal?

“I’m going to go have a McFlurry,” Hamilton said.

Do they make them in beer flavor?

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