Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images(PYEONGCHANG, South Korea) — John Shuster and his “ragtag squad” made history for the United States by winning its first-ever gold medal in curling.
“It feels almost unbelievable,” said curler Matt Hamilton immediately after the match. “We came out here with great intensity and just had to believe we could do it.”
Neither the Americans, who were slight underdogs, nor their Swedish opponents had ever been in the Olympic finals.
The Americans knew Sweden’s strategy would be to make a lot of shots, and they would have to challenge them during each end — similar to an inning in baseball — on the sheet, or ice.
Tied at 5-5 in the eighth end, Team USA took a commanding lead after a tactical error by Sweden, which left the door open for the Americans to score five points and secure their gold medal victory.
The Swedish team conceded in the last end knowing they could not win. The United States won, 10-7.
“Believing in ourselves, playing the way we know how,” said John Landsteiner. “One of our goals was to come out and be ourselves.”
The first ends were evenly balanced, with the team in gold position flipping back and forth throughout.
A Shuster miss in the second end gave Sweden a chance to take an early lead with two points. But the U.S. captain came back with a perfect last shot, or hammer, to equalize in the third.
By the fourth end, an overthrown stone from Sweden’s Niklus Edin meant the first and only call for a measurement to see which stone was closest to the center of the “house” — the area that looks like a bullseye.
Team USA took the lead, 3-2. Shuster then overshot on his last delivery, and Sweden was able to score two and again take the lead. But, by the sixth, Team USA had retaken the lead.
Hamilton then drew cheers from the stands by delivering a perfect slide in the seventh end.
Skip Niklus Edin had a big miss that triggered a flurry of comments on social media. But he managed to salvage one point to tie.
Another error by Edin in the 8th sealed the victory for the “ragtags.”
“This is what you dream about as a teenager,” said Tyler George before the team faced Canada in the semifinals.
The Americans’ victory over three-time defending Olympic champions Canada, which came down to the last stone, stunned the curling world. Shuster and his team battled down to the wire, rallying late as they have had to throughout most of the early parts of the tournament.
Curling is often overshadowed by the more well-known winter sports and more famous athletes. The U.S. men’s curling team members are hardly household names, but they have deftly maneuvered through the early stages of the competition by leaning on each other.
“We have been in tough situations where our backs have been up against the wall,” said Hamilton.
Going into the gold medal match, he and the team knew what had to be done.
“It is really all about positivity,” he added.
Sweden reportedly prepared for the curling event by playing hours of billiards, learning from the pool table how the balls react to particular shots. A major difference in curling, however, is that the sheet is “pebbled,” or has a rough finish, which affects the movement of the stone. Aggressive sweeping can change the direction of the stone as the broom warms the ice and alters the surface.
In the early rounds, Team USA was struggling with a 2-2 standing, with some predicting another dismal result for the team at Pyeongchang; it had finished ninth and 10th in the last two Olympics.
But the Americans fought back by winning three games in a row to advance to the semifinals.
With the Americans’ run, curling is suddenly in the limelight again. The broom, skip, hammer, button and sheet terms are being introduced — as they are every four years — to the American public.
For Shuster, this is his fourth Olympic run — and his third as skip, or captain. His teammates credit him for leading them during tough victories.
“He knows the game very well. He knows the right things to say to his teammates and how to get the best out of them,” said Landsteiner after an earlier match victory.
Shuster was passed over when USA Curling started a high-performance program after the Sochi Games to strengthen the curling athletic program. The snub forced him to rethink his approach to the sport.
He put himself on a physical fitness program, lost 35 pounds and sought out curlers with potential who had also been overlooked for the elite squad. The players he convinced to join him were nicknamed the “ragtag” team, which went on to qualify for Pyeongchang.
Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump, who is heading the official U.S.A delegation to the closing ceremony, was in the crowd cheering on Team USA. But it was Shuster’s 4-year-old son, Luke, who has been the most vocal fan.
Ivanka Trump was seen laughing and joking with the young cheerleader between ends.
“He just loves being loud and making sure that I can hear that he’s here,” joked Shuster. “He is doing his best to cheer me on. His favorite one is to ‘give me a U, give me an S, give me an A.’ Who are we? And then everyone chants: ‘USA.'”
Curling fans throughout the United States were doing the same.
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