'Regular guys' from northern Minnesota hope for curling gold in Sochi

Curling team
The 2014 Olympic men's curling team poses at the Duluth Curling Club on Jan 26, 2014. (from L-R, John Landsteiner of Duluth, Jared Zezel of Hibbing, Jeff Isaacson of Virginia, and John Shuster of Duluth).
Dan Kraker / MPR News

Every morning, John Shuster loads his 8-month-old son in his car seat and heads for the Duluth Curling Club, just as the baby starts to get sleepy.

"Sometimes he sleeps for 20 minutes, and I can throw 15 rocks, sometimes he sleeps for an hour and I can throw 50," Shuster said of the 40-pound granite stones used in curling. "My number of practice rocks in the morning is a direct derivative of the amount of sleep he needs or wants."

Such is the life for an Olympic athlete toiling far from the spotlight of more glamorous sports like skiing or figure skating.

"We don't live at a training facility," Shuster said. "We all live our own lives, we come together on weekends and play, except that everyone's practicing their butts off during the weeks when we're not together."

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He's one of four regular guys from northern Minnesota who make up this year's American Olympic curling team. They leave for Sochi on Saturday and hope to erase memories of Team USA's disastrous finish in Vancouver four years ago.

As the skip of Team USA, the 31-year-old Shuster determines the group's strategy and throws the last two rocks of each "end," kind of like an inning in baseball.

Teams alternate sliding heavy, polished granite stones down the ice, trying to stop them closest to the center of a target. Players sweep in front of the rock, which briefly heats up the ice and affects the rock's velocity and path.

In curling, players slide polished stones of granite that weigh between 38 and 44 pounds down sheets of ice, trying to get them to stop closest to the center, or "button," of the target. The area within the outside circle of the target is called the "house."
Dan Kraker / MPR News

"We kind of call it chess on ice," said teammate Jared Zezel, a student at Bemidji State University.

"There's more of a strategy component to it," said Zezel, who at 22 is the team's youngest member. "You can beat teams on strategy alone, instead of execution."

It took years of practice for Zezel and his teammates, who all started playing in middle school, to reach this level. Three became immersed in the sport on the Iron Range, including Jeff Isaacson, who now teaches science at Gilbert Junior High School. He said balancing work and curling has taken a toll.

"You never seem to get caught up it seems," Isaacson said. "Finally by Thursday, you think you're there, and then you're out the door again flying off to another event, come home tired. You gotta go teach the next day. It's never ending, so it's been a very tiring year trying to do both."

The team navigated a tough field at the U.S. Trials in Fargo in November. Then they won five straight matches at a tournament in Germany to qualify for the Olympics. Since then they've traveled to Scotland and Las Vegas.

To pay their way the team pieces together modest tournament winnings with sponsorships, some funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and proceeds from selling Team USA gear online.

Still, Shuster said they can't always make ends meet.

"A couple years ago, my parents floated our team a loan of an extra two or three thousand bucks so we could actually play, luckily, we won a little bit of money we were able to pay them back last year, and pretty much break even, but we're always paying for our own food out of our own pockets."

A member of the American men's Olympic curling team slides down a sheet of ice at the Duluth Curling Club on Jan. 26, 2014.
Dan Kraker / MPR News

That dedication has paid off for Shuster, who's making his third Olympic appearance. He won a bronze medal in 2006. But he took a lot of heat for the team's poor play in Vancouver, where they won only two out of nine games.

Shuster said the disastrous performance fueled growth in the sport's popularity.

"I think there were a lot of young people that came out and tried curling, being like, our team sucked at this Olympics, we're going to make the next team, and we're going to take this country back to whatever, " he said. "And seriously I think it helped grow our sport among younger people."

There are now an estimated 16,000 curlers in the United States, which has one of the higher participation rates in the world. But U.S. interest in curling pales to that of Canada, which has won the last two Olympic gold medals in men's curling. About one million people play there. Shuster said the best can make a pretty good living at it.

Although he knows it likely won't happen overnight, he hopes curling will eventually reach that level of popularity in the United States.

"We've been on TV; we've had good ratings," he said. "If we have a solid Olympics, maybe we can get our sport to a place where people can make some money doing it."