Jason Smith still calls out John Shuster for tricking him into going curling way back when they were teenagers in tiny Chisholm, Minn. Shuster, the one who could already drive at the time, showed up at Smith’s house on a Sunday tempting his buddy with a McDonald’s run.
Jason Smith still calls out John Shuster for tricking him into going curling way back when they were teenagers in tiny Chisholm, Minn. Shuster, the one who could already drive at the time, showed up at Smith’s house on a Sunday tempting his buddy with a McDonald’s run.They wound up at the Chisholm Curling Club. More than a decade later, these longtime buddies are headed for an even bigger trip: to the Vancouver Olympics in February on Shuster’s team. Shuster is the skip, or captain, and Smith is his vice skip.While Shuster figures they eventually made it to McDonald’s that day, Smith isn’t so sure.“I’m still waiting for that,” Smith said with a grin, noting he’s probably earned himself a steak dinner by now.“Well, interest, he probably has,” Shuster said. “I think I’ve paid him back many times over since then.”The 27-year-old Shuster is returning for his second Olympics after bringing home bronze from the 2006 Turin Games. It was the Americans’ first Olympic curling medal and first in a major men’s competition since 1978. He expects to be back in the medal round this time if all goes as planned.“It’s pretty neat,” U.S. men’s coach Phill Drobnick said. “They’ve got a pretty good relationship. It’s always good to build on that on the ice together. It would be nice to keep building (with another medal).”Shuster needed Smith on his side to get to Vancouver. Smith, who will be the best man in Shuster’s wedding next summer, was living and working in Florida two years ago when he got the call from his old pal. Smith hadn’t curled in close to a year.“Hey, I want to go back to the Olympics. Will you come back and play?" Shuster pleaded to the guy who grew up a quarter-mile from him in their hometown of 5,000 people in Minnesota’s Iron Range region. “I don’t see it happening any other way.”Shuster thought he was losing teammate Jeff Isaacson for the 2008 national championships because of his student-teaching responsibilities. Turns out Isaacson stayed on the team and Smith eagerly accepted the invitation, too. Isaacson and Smith also had curled together for a decade.“We certainly felt we could make a run at it,” Isaacson said of going to the Olympics.Those three Olympians are joined on this close-knit team by 40-year-old John Benton — or “great-grandpa” as they often call him because he’s so much older than the rest of the group. Drobnick is just 29. Chris Plys is their alternate.When Shuster called Smith with the formal invitation, the two were still in touch all the time. Shuster had planted the seed to Smith about getting back into competition.“I was like, ‘Well, if you absolutely need a player, call me,’ not thinking he really would,” Smith recalled.Even with the layoff, Smith was back in curling shape so quickly it was as if he’d never stepped off the ice.It’s not like these two were talking Olympics during their junior curling days, when they would head to the club after school and get somebody to open the ice for them to practice. They regularly threw 100 rocks.“We were very competitive people,” said Shuster, whose father curled in a men’s league and turned his son onto the game. “After school, it was like we were in another sport. By 2001-02 we were competing with the top people in the world.”Shuster had attended the 1997 Olympic curling trials in Duluth as a fan and decided then it was his goal to get to the 2010 Games. He hadn’t even been shooting for Turin — that was just a bonus. When the time came to plan for these Olympics, Smith had to be in the mix.“He was one of the best athletes I knew,” Shuster said.Both had quit basketball but were high school baseball teammates.They each went on to play junior college baseball at nearby Hibbing, but missed each other there because Smith is a year younger and started after Shuster already had moved on to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. As a sophomore at Hibbing, Shuster made a start at every position on the diamond.Still, curling was his love, and he didn’t think aiming for the 2010 Olympics was too big a dream. Yet for curlers, there are the real-life challenges of holding down a full-time job and finding employers flexible enough to work with a training and competition schedule that takes athletes to Europe and all over Canada.While Shuster is engaged, Benton is the only married one in the bunch and none have children.“This group was pretty well suited for this,” Benton said. “None of us have huge attachments.”Benton can perform his work duties as an operating systems analyst for a health-care network in the Twin Cities remotely and has flexible hours.Shuster’s got a pretty good gig himself. In the summer, he’s on the grounds crew at a golf course near where he lives in Duluth, and he’s a bartender at Duluth Curling Club in the winter. He trains in the mornings.Now, gearing up for the Olympics and with heavier demands, Shuster only works one night a week. He and Smith and their teammates are spending long days together. If not on the ice or talking strategy, they might be razzing each other over the shuffleboard table or concentrating on a serious game of cards.For this group, staying loose and having fun is what helps them when it’s crunch time.And while Shuster and Smith are focused in on the task of reaching the podium, they do know this experience together is one they will cherish for years.“I thought about this when I was taking him to McDonald’s, I did,” Shuster said.Now, they’re almost there.