No monkey business: Olympic curler John Shuster and his unconventional path to success

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Ana Bellinghausen
CONTRIBUTOR

John Shuster can tell anyone the exact moment that led to his Olympic curling career. It just so happened to be his second grade Pinocchio musical.

“I remember second grade quite well, and I credit that year to my path as an Olympian,” Shuster said. “I was Pinocchio in my school play and that’s when I realized I could perform well in front of a crowd.”

Shuster reflected back to his grade school days during an elementary school visit before a press conference in Omaha, Nebraska. The second-graders asked typical questions such as how many medals he had and how old he was—until one asked if he could sing.

“I have no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, to make me frown,” Shuster sung with no objection.

The line was from his Pinocchio solo that birthed the confidence Shuster would carry with him on the curling ice and eventually to the Olympics podium. However, the U.S. curling team captain’s success did not come right away. In Shuster’s first 2006 Winter Olympics appearance, the U.S. took bronze after falling to Canada and Finland.

“There I was on the podium at the Olympics, really proud,” Shuster said. “But then they gave Team Canada gold medals, played the Canadian anthem and I thought it was so disappointing because I wanted to hear our anthem.”

After 2006, Shuster once again couldn’t hear the U.S. anthem at the following 2010 and 2014 Olympics due to a last place and second-to-last place finish. This served as a motivator for Shuster, and he decided it was time for a change.

“For the next 12 years, I started to work harder than I ever did prior to find the right fit and the right teammates,” Shuster said. “I wanted to stand on that podium and hear our national anthem.”

That change started at Omaha’s Baxter Arena during the 2017 Olympic Trials for curling.

These trials determined which curling team would represent the U.S. for 2018’s Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang. After an opening loss for their best of three series, Team Shuster searched for a spark.

“We had to win our next two games, and do you know what we did for good luck for the rest?” Shuster asked. “We went to the zoo and hung out with the monkeys.”

Their next game ended in a victory, so naturally Shuster’s team went right back to the zoo before their final, decisive game.

“Instead of thinking about the Olympics, we just enjoyed time with our family and teammates walking around and laughing,” Shuster said. “We ended up winning the finals and it was in those stretch of three days that myself and our team found out what it was going to take for us to be successful when we got to the Olympics.”

With the help of some monkeys, Team Shuster headed to Pyeong Chang in 2018 to rewrite U.S. curling history. For the first time, a team composed of John Shuster, Joe Polo, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner took home gold for America.

“We got to stand on top of that podium and sing our national anthem,” Shuster said. “That’s what made my entire athletic journey worthwhile: ending in 2018 with our gold medals.”

However, Shuster’s curling career is not at its final chapter. He aims to compete at the 2021 Olympic Team Trials for curling in Omaha. The city will once again host the trials at Baxter Arena, where Shuster’s first gold run began.

“For us athletes in general, and me personally, this place holds a special place for me,” Shuster said. “One of the best moments of my life happened here and it’s going to be exciting to come back.”

Not only is it exciting for Shuster, but for the entire country. Since their U.S. gold medal, curling has seen a significant spike in growth and coverage.

“That win led to a mega-rise in popularity of curling in the U.S.,” Omaha Sports Commission President Josh Todd said. “It all started in Omaha in my humble opinion.”

As Shuster heads to the heartland once again for the 2021 trials, he will be practicing his curling skills and maybe even singing.

“We’re competing and trying to get better every day and hopefully every year,” Shuster said. “We’ll be the best team we’ve ever been showing up for this.”

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