Wednesday, February 12, 2014

XXII Olympic Winter Games, Sochi 2014 (Day 5)

Hey, we got one! The Team USA men's curlers took down Denmark, 7-4, this morning, as John Shuster and the boys rallied from 3-0 down.

A third of the round-robin tournament is over, and the Americans are 1-2. That's tied for fifth--behind China, Norway and Sweden at 3-0 and Great Britain at 2-1. Canada, Denmark and Switzerland are 1-2, and Germany and Russia are 0-3. Each team plays the other nine in the round-robin tournament, and the best four records advance to the medals tournament. So, we'll see.

The only Olympic Winter Games at which the United States won a curling medal was Torino 2006. A rink skipped by Pete Fenson, a 34-year-old pizzeria owner from Bemidji, Minn., claimed bronze. John Shuster, a 23-year-old from Chisholm, Minn., earned one of those Olympic medals as the lead of the Fenton rink.

At the "Curling for Dummies Cheat Sheet," Bob Weeks writes, "The skip is the captain of the team and decides the strategy. It’s the skip’s job to tell the other players where to throw their shots and when to sweep. The skip also delivers the last two shots of the end. The skip must be good at all types of shots."

"The lead," Weeks continues, "throws the first two rocks of the end and then sweeps the next six. The lead must be very good at throwing guards and a strong sweeper." (Wikipedia adds, "(L)eads are usually proficient at throwing guards and other draws, and throw few takeouts or other power shots.")

But Shuster didn't want to be a lead (Matthew DeGorge wrote in a terrific Feb. 12, 2012, story for The Delaware County Times of Upper Darby Township, Pa.) Shuster wanted to be a skip.

Things worked out pretty well. Shuster broke from Fenson's rink, started his own and qualified for the Vancouver 2010 games.

Then came, as DeGorge labeled it, "the Vancouver debacle." NBC had taped an interview before the Olympics in which Shuster talked about being "almost addicted" to the pressure of having the last rock. The United States opened the tournament with four straight losses, and, in three of them, Shuster--in a signature baseball cap that drew even more attention to himself--had the last rock with a chance to win and failed to do so. In mid-tournament, Shuster was benched.

And that might've been the last we ever heard about Shuster at the Olympics. He withdrew from the 2010 national championships, which occurred just a few weeks after the Vancouver Games. He did not skip a rink that participated in the 2011 national championships. He did enter a rink in 2012 and '13 national championships, and the first- and second-place finishers would earn automatic berths for the 2013 U.S. Olympic Curling Trials--but Shuster's rink failed to finish so high.

But in the complicated rules of the U.S. Olympic Curling Trials, the United States Curling Association's "High Performance Program (HPP) Selection Committee" selected a fifth rink for the November 2013 tournament in Fargo, N.D. Shuster's rink, which had placed third in the two previous national championships, was the choice.

Hats off to Shuster that he and the rest of his rink made the most of the opportunity. Dad of a 6-month-old and a manager of Duluth's venerable Pickwick Restaurant & Pub, Shuster could practice only sporadically in advance of the tournament. In Fargo, though, the Shuster rink won six of eight round-robin games against the four 2012 and '13 national champions and runners-up. That was the best performance in the tournament. Shuster's and the second-place team in the round-robin portion advanced to the best-of-three finals.

And that rink was none other than Pete Fenson's.

Shuster, now 31, and Fenson, 45, waged a back-and-forth affair. The first game, on Friday, Nov. 15, saw Shuster open an 8-3 advantage after seven of 10 "ends" before his old skip scored 2, 2 and 1 to force an 11th, in which the Shuster rink prevailed for a 9-8 victory. In Saturday's Game 2, it was Shuster who rallied from behind, with a 10th-end score, before Fenson's rink won in the 11th, 5-4, to force a Sunday rubber game.

"No problem," Fenson told the Bemidji Pioneer back home. "We have been through it a lot of times. Like I said, my team handles these big games really well. I never worry about them. I know they are going to show up, I know they are going to be relaxed. They almost always play great."

But Fenson's rink did not play great; Fenson especially did not. If you thought the USCA's qualification rules were complicated, check out this discussion of how curling "accuracy percentage" is determined. Whatever, Fenson's accuracy was scored as 82 percent and 91 percent in games 1 and 2 of the Olympic Trials (compared to 81 percent and 86 percent for opposing skip Shuster). In Game 3, Shuster's accuracy was 94 percent. Fenson's? Forty percent.

After four ends on Sunday in Fargo, it was 11-1. "Stunned silence" is how Rachel Blount of the Minneapolis StarTribune described Scheels Arena after what happened next: Fenson conceded.

"It was like a funeral in here," Shuster told Fenson's hometown Bemidji Pioneer.

"It’s notable that Fenson rallied from 8-3 down after seven ends on Friday," Nick Zaccardi wrote for NBC OlympicTalk. "He must have believed that a 10-point deficit with three more ends to make it up than Friday was too much."

Even then, the Shuster rink wasn't yet through to Sochi.

Eight teams--the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States--vied in a Dec. 10-15 qualification tournament in Fussen, Germany, for two Olympic berths. And if you thought the USCA's qualification rules or the curling accuracy percentage were confusing, get this (from Wikipedia):

Except in the men's round robin, four teams finished 5-2. So, in some no-doubt-Byzantine method that is mercifully not explained, it was determined which two 5-2 teams made the playoffs and which two 5-2 teams had to compete in a tie-breaker and then how they would be seeded in the two-game playoffs to determine which two teams would go to the Olympics. 

Shuster's rink and South Korea went to the tie-breaker. In the ninth end, South Korea scored 1 to pull within 6-5. In the 10th, Shuster scored, and his rink was into the finals as the third seed.

Germany, playing at home, beat the Czech Republic in the first qualifier for a berth to Sochi. That meant Shuster's rink in the second qualifier would play the Czech Republic, which had won the team's round-robin game, 9-7. After seven ends, it was 3-2 in favor of the Czechs. But then Shuster scored a stunning 5 in the eighth end. The Czech Republic came back with 2 in the ninth, but Shuster added a score in the 10th, and the 8-5 victory finally had Shuster headed back to the Olympics to see if Sochi 2014 might be a happier experience than had been Vancouver 2010.

And then the smiles got harder to come by yet again. After a 7-4 loss Monday to Norway, Shuster (@Shoostie2010) Tweeted of "a struggle today." After a 9-7 loss Tuesday to China, Shuster Tweeted of "a tough day on the ice." Even the HP kicked when he was down.

Who knows what happens now? Team USA plays Germany tomorrow. Given that the Germans are winless and the Americans are currently on the pop side of the playoff bubble, this has to be considered a must win.

But, whatever, today was a good day. Good luck, John Shuster. Sorry for the shot yesterday. Go, Team USA.


  1. For those who have come to know and love the U.S. Winter Olympians of 2002-'06-'10, Sochi 2014 is becoming a very melancholy Games. No Lindsey Vonn or Evan Lysacek ... no medals for Shaun White, Bode Miller or Shani Davis ... and now no Bob Costas. I love you all; I miss you all, and I will forever remember the good times.

  2. No Apollo Ohno. No downhill medal for Julie Mancuso.

  3. Davis, a 31-year-old from Chicago who won gold in men's 1,000-meter speed skating at Torino 2006 and then at Vancouver 2010 became the first man to ever successfully defend the Olympic title in that event, finished eighth in the 1000m in Sochi. The Netherlands continued their speed skating medal haul, claiming gold and bronze in this race. Canada scored silver. Brian Hansen, a 23-year-old from Evanston, Ill, came in ninth, immediately behind Davis.

  4. Julia Mancuso, a 29-year-old from Reno, Nev., on Sunday earned bronze in the super combined, becoming the first U.S. woman to win four alpine skiing medals during her Olympic career. Today, in the downhill, an event in which she won silver at Vancouver 2010, Mancuso placed eighth. Slovenia's Tina Maze and Switzerland's Dominique Gisin tied for gold; Lara Gut of Switzerland took bronze.

  5. Shaun White, a 27-year-old from San Diego, is the Elvis Presley of halfpipe snowboarding. But last night Elvis left the building, finishing fourth in the event in which he had won gold medals at Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010.

    1. The gold went to Switzerland; silver and bronze, to Japan.

  6. Bill Demong, a 33-year-old from Saranac Lake, in 2010 became the first U.S. athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in Nordic skiing. That came in the "individual Gundersen long hill" event, and that event won't take place in Sochi until Tuesday. But in the "normal hill" event today--as Germany, Japan and Norway claimed the medals--Gundersen finished 24th. He finished sixth in this same event in 2010.

  7. The XXII Games have a week and a half to go. Maybe there's a whole new generation of Team USA bobsleigh and skeleton stars I'm about to fall in love with. Maybe Shani Davis is going to win the 1,500 meters, and maybe Billy Demong is going to repeat on the long hill. Maybe Bob Costas is going to come back better than ever, or maybe John Shuster's about to rock our world.

  8. And I'm pretty sure we've got some star-spangled moments left tonight. Channel 6 is holding off the local news for some ladies' snowboarding, and, every time they go back to the studio, Matt Lauer seems like he knows something good.

  9. OK, here we go ... U! S! A! U! S! A! ... Americans are 1-2 in women's halfpipe with two to go ...

  10. Team USA in first and third now ... one to go ... and it's the Salt Lake City 2000 gold medalist in the event, who is also an American, Kelly Clark ...

  11. Hurrah! Gold goes to Kaitlyn Farrington of Hailey, Idaho! Silver is Australia's Torah Bright, the Vancouver 2010 champ, and bronze goes to Kelly Clark of Mammoth Lakes, Ca., who won gold way back at Salt Lake City 2002 and bronze in Vancouver.

  12. OK, and now Matt Lauer is making me feel better. Team USA is back to fourth on the medal table, and Ted Ligety, who won alpine combined gold in Torino 2006, has a couple of events coming up.

  13. Oh, wait ... that's fourth for Team USA in that total-medals ranking, which is jive.

  14. Medals table:

    1. Germany 6 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze
    2. Canada 4, 4, 2
    3. Norway 4, 3, 5
    4. Netherlands 4, 2, 4
    5. United States 3, 1, 5
    6. Switzerland 3, 0, 1
    7. Russian Federation 2, 4, 3
    8. Austria 1, 4, 0
    9. Slovenia 1, 1, 2
    10. France 1, 0, 2
    11. Belarus 1, 0, 0
    11. Poland 1, 0, 0
    11. Slovakia 1, 0, 0
    11. South Korea 1, 0, 0
    15. Sweden 0, 3, 1
    16. Czech Republic 0, 2, 1
    16. Japan 0, 2, 1
    18. Italy 0, 1, 1
    19. Australia 0, 1, 0
    19. China 0, 1, 0
    19. Finland 0, 1, 0
    22. Great Britain 0, 0, 1
    22. Latvia 0, 0, 1
    22. Ukraine 0, 0, 1