GANGNEUNG, South Korea—So a liquor store manager, an environmental consultant, an R&D specialist, and a Dick’s Sporting Goods store associate slide into the Olympics…
You’ve spent the last two weeks hearing about how all these Olympic athletes are “just like us”—you know, except for the fact that they’re world-class athletes who train year-round in highly orchestrated and regulated conditions. Friends, it’s time to get up close with some Olympic athletes who aren’t just “like” us—they are us.
America, meet The Rejects.
It’s a story straight out of every ‘80s movie, and it’s the perfect story to close off the PyeongChang Winter Games. The men’s curling team, which plays Sweden Saturday for a gold medal, wasn’t even supposed to be here.
Four years ago, John Shuster, skip of this year’s quartet and a four-time Olympian, stumbled home from the Sochi Games, his team battered and bruised from a second straight weak Olympic finish after a 2006 bronze. Shuster planned to work with USA Curling to ensure such a debacle never happened again. USA Curling wanted the same thing—only, without Shuster involved. USA Curling developed a new “high-performance curling circuit”—these would be the sleek bad guys in that ‘80s movie, though they’re surely decent dudes in real life—and Shuster found himself on the outside looking in.
“They said, ‘Sorry. You’re not wanted.’ That’s maybe what hurt the most,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently. “That day, I committed for the next four years. I was driven. When someone tells you you’re not part of the plan, it’s always nice to show them you’d better be part of the plan. To prove somebody wrong on that scale is very satisfying.”
You can guess what happened next: Shuster recruited fellow castoffs Matt Hamilton, Tyler George, and John Landsteiner, dubbed the crew “The Rejects,” and proceeded to beat USA Curling’s high-performance teams so badly that the organization had no choice but to let Shuster’s crew back into the fold en masse. And now, they’ve fought their way all the way into the gold medal game, defeating three-time defending gold medal champion Canada along the way.
The best part? They work regular jobs and train at local curling centers, hanging out with other regular folks. “They curl all the time at the club,” says Linda Christensen, president of the Duluth (Minn.) Curling Club, “sometimes with each other and sometimes against each other. John Landsteiner and his wife are in a mixed doubles curling league with another couple. You might line up against John Shuster or Tyler George any given night. It’s pretty crazy.”
Duluth Curling Club is the home of three of the curlers—Hamilton trains in Madison, Wisconsin—and dates back 130 years. It operates from October to March, and club members can get ice time any time—not a luxury many other clubs offer. Plus, it’s heartland as heck—check out this tidbit from the club’s history: “The original building was a tent between two retaining walls on East Superior Street downtown, but it was carried away by a blizzard that winter.” Of such humble origins does greatness spring.
Down the road apiece in Madison stands the McFarland Curling Club, home base for five Olympians and Paralympians including Hamilton and his sister Becca. Member Paul Dean answered the phone Thursday night local time, and talked of the club while cooking dinner for a few of the other members hanging out.
“Matt’s been here a long time,” Dean says. “I remember him when he was probably 14 years old. One time he broke his arm, but he was so excited because he could still throw a stone even with a cast on his right hand. Then he grew up, and he got to the Olympics, and everybody here is very proud of him.” And so, we could add, is his country.
More than 80 curling fans, family and friends of the curlers, have made the trip from the Midwest to PyeongChang to cheer on the team. They do so in a red, white, and blue bloc, shouting a range of player-specific chants (“Oh Matty you’re so fine!”) as well as the standard “U-S-A” and “Seven Nation Army” calls. It’s inspiring as all hell, and it has an impact.
“After the first game of the Olympic trials our fans were scattered [around the arena] and they decided, ‘We’re going to come together and be together, be a team with our team,'” Shuster said. “You saw that tonight. They came together and rallied, and it really energized us to come out here and enjoy the moment.”
The Rejects take on Sweden Saturday at 1:30 a.m. Eastern. It’ll be a tough match—they always are at this level—but for Team USA, no challenge could be tougher than just getting this far.
“The guys played the game of their lives when they mattered the most,” George said after the victory over Canada. “We’re not hoping to play well, we’re expecting it. We know we’re going to do it when we go out there now.”
And if you happen to find yourself in the Greater Duluth or Madison metropolitan areas at any time in the near future, pay a visit to the local curling clubs. You never know, you might just end up sliding rocks with an Olympic medalist.