It's not often that a doughy sports Internet writer can directly relate to Olympic athletes. But after Team USA curling skip John Shuster was benched following three straight losses in which his final throw cost them the win in each match, I painfully empathized. It hearkens to the best athletic achievement of my life.
Back in 2003 I was skipping a curling team for Bowling Green State University. We played a regional tournament in Detroit, and out of seven teams that participated, we took pride in a third place finish. It wasn't the World Series, but the moment was unparalleled in my meager trophy case, because if my team ever won anything, I wasn't the captain.
The following year, my senior season, regionals were held at BGSU. Suffice to say, our butts were thoroughly lacerated as if every other team was full-blooded Canadian. I want to say we finished in sixth place out of 10 teams. It was probably worse than that, but most of it was because I was playing awful.
Nationals were a couple months away, and another gentleman named Matt, my roommate and vice-skip, was making some pretty good shots.
When Shuster was benched in the Olympics, alternate Chris Plys became the skip throwing third stones and vice-skip Jason Smith was promoted to fourth. This lineup change gave USA their first win of the Olympics over France on Friday. The next day Shuster was back in the lineup, skipping but throwing third. Fate was hellbent on putting Team USA in the exact same freaking situation, giving the Americans the hammer in an extra end, but this time it was cradled in Smith's hand. And wouldn't you know: coach Phill Drobnick was validated in his roster switcharoo: Smith's final shot was the difference in their 7-6 win over Sweden.
College Curling USA is not a staunchly competitive body. All one needs to enter is $30 and a mode of transportation to, in this case, Chicago. Still … any kind of national tournament merits some brand of competition and determination. And that's why, prior to our decision to actually enter for national, I asked my roommate if he wanted to skip. We finished 2-1 in round robin play and lost the third place game, but it was close and competitive.
Even though bonspiels, Olympics, and local curling leagues track wins and losses, the enjoyment factor pulsates through the heart of the sport. Nobody should toss their broom to the ground after a bad shot — and I'd be lying if I said I never did this during a game. Rarely do elite teams jar their lineup like a struggling baseball team — and when NBC curling analyst Don Duguid said that Shuster would've found his touch again had they not changed the lineup, I don't disagree — but the key of this sport and others is to understand the pressure and its scope. Pressure can apply to drawing to the button in the final rock of the 11th end or diffusing a nuclear bomb in the middle of New York City. And this always needs to be pointed out to a struggling gamer, by any means necessary — even if it means changing horses and forcing some humility. Hey, it worked for me.
(Aside: When the USA women lost badly to Canada 9-2, skip Debbie McCormick and vice Allison Pottinger switched spots in the lineup; it didn't help the result of their next game against defending world champions Sweden in a 9-3 loss, but they did play better.)
No, there will be no miraculous medal-round comeback for the Americans. But you could tell Shuster was a much looser skip in their 4-2 loss to Great Britain on Sunday. When Smith had a crucial (and difficult) double takeout shot, Shuster joked to his vice that he'd give him $20 if he made the shot. The result was was only a single takeout that was inches away from being a double, but his wisecrackery was back. Which now makes two reasons I can relate to an Olympic athlete.