SOCHI, Russia – John Shuster’s Olympic fate came down to one final throw Friday night. In terms of difficulty, the throw wasn’t impossible, but Shuster couldn’t recall ever facing a more challenging scenario with the game on the line.
“That’s a pretty low-percentage shot,” he said.
The Team USA skip got his rock tantalizingly close, but just not enough to avoid a deflating 7-6 loss to Russia in the Olympic men’s curling tournament at the Ice Cube Curling Center.
The loss dropped Shuster’s rink (team) to 2-4 in the round-robin tournament, tied for sixth place. Teams play nine games; the top four advance to the medal round.
The U.S. team is still mathematically alive, but Shuster struck an honest tone about his rink’s chances of moving on.
“We have to win out and hope for some help now,” he said. “But we can’t think of anything other than the fact that we can do it. I know this team can do it.”
The U.S. women’s team finds itself in even worse shape. Erika Brown’s rink remained in last place in the standings at 1-5 after a 9-2 thumping at the hands of Denmark on Friday.
Team USA’s performance has been a major disappointment here.
“It’s not like we’ll leave here thinking that we don’t belong here,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t perform like we know we can.”
Shuster’s rink had a chance to keep itself in medal-round contention with a victory. The teams were tied 6-6 entering the final end, and Russia gained the advantage by landing a rock in the button (bull’s-eye). It also had one rock snug against it on top.
Shuster’s only play was to try to feather his rock around the top rock with the hope of stopping it inside the button, too. He got it close, but not enough to edge out Russia’s rock.
“It’s as precise a shot as you could ever have to make in a curling game and have to do it with no communication,” he said. “I’m proud of how close we got.”
The home crowd cheered loudly on Shuster’s final throw. The noise resulted in a miscommunication on how Shuster wanted the throw executed, because vice skip Jeff Isaacson couldn’t hear an instruction. “That’s the home crowd of the Olympics,” Shuster said.
Curling crowds are typically like golf crowds, Shuster said. They don’t usually cheer. But this is the Olympics with national pride at stake, and Russian fans made it a lively atmosphere.
“Competitors in our sport don’t get a chance to experience that other than here” in the Olympics, Shuster said. “Obviously, it’s great to experience that. And when you have a shot to win the game, it makes it that much harder.”
Shuster said that if he had that exact same scenario at a national tournament, “You’d be able to hear a pin drop.”
“Because it’s curlers watching curling,” he said. “In there, it’s Russian Olympics fans cheering for Russia. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing. There’s only one time in our sport you get to do that, and it’s right here.”
Shuster noted that members of the Russian team tried to quiet the crowd before his shot. “That’s the class act that that team has,” he said. “They were trying to make it be the way curling is supposed to be and it just wasn’t possible.”
The game went back and forth with neither team able to gain separation. In the seventh end, a measuring device was needed to determine that Russia’s rock was a hair closer to the middle. The United States still got one point, but it could’ve had a two-point score.
“That was insanely close,” Shuster said. “That was probably within 2 millimeters. So it’s not even a game of inches. They say football is a game of inches. Curlers wish they had inches.”
Shuster’s team now has three games left to try to end on a positive note. His rink finished the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver in 10th place with a 2-7 record. He doesn’t want a repeat of that.
“I thought for the most part the team has played well the whole time and I finally picked my game up the last three games where we’re finishing ends,” Shuster said. “That was tough to lose that kind of game.”