AP Sports Writer
It says much about John Shuster’s current state of mind that the United States curling skip is bringing his wife and 8-month-old son with him to the terrorism-threatened Winter Olympics in Sochi.
He is heading to Russia with no fear -- on or off the ice.
That’s some feat, considering Shuster’s painful experience at the 2010 Vancouver Games that would have inflicted lasting damage on many people.
He was captain of a U.S. team that had high hopes of making a second straight podium in the men’s tournament, after its bronze medal in Turin in 2006. But he ended up being benched -- albeit briefly -- after losing all four of his first matches, and the U.S. wound up last in the standings with a 2-7 record.
"It just didn’t work out," Shuster says, casting his mind back to his darkest hour in curling.
That experience, however, could well be the making of him.
After some soul-searching post-Vancouver, Shuster has bounced back in a newly formed rink that contains three other people from his home state of Minnesota -- Jeff Isaacson, John Landsteiner and Jared Zezel. Isaacson was with Shuster on the Vancouver team.
They came through a strong field at the U.S. Olympic trials in Fargo at the end of last year and then overcame a bad start in the Olympic qualification event to win five straight games, securing a return to the Winter Games.
Things have changed on the home front for Shuster, too. For the past few months, he has ditched his job as a restaurant manager in Duluth to become a stay-at-home dad for Luke while his wife Sara, who he married a few months after Vancouver, works long hours as a pharmacist.
They’ll both be there in Sochi, as well as his parents, despite security fears surrounding the Olympics.
"Things have come together just as I hoped they would," Shuster said in a telephone interview prior to the team flying out to Russia.
"The team won’t make the same mistakes (as in 2010) when we get those opportunities. We have to capitalize on them. I think the more you play at world events and top-caliber events, the more comfortable you are playing in them. And I’m getting to the point where I’m pretty darn comfortable."
They are upbeat words from Shuster and the team’s head coach, Tim Muller, backs them up.
"You can’t come away from what happened (in Vancouver) without gaining some experience," Muller said. "I think he’s so focused on this and the chemistry in the team now is way different from what it was then. It’s so good, so comfortable."
So good, in fact, that Zezel -- a student who has taken a year off the books to follow his Olympic dream -- has been staying at the Shusters’ place for three days here, four days there, while he practises with the team in the nearby curling club.
That’s nothing new to Shuster, who lived together with Isaacson and another teammate, Jason Smith, in a two-bedroom apartment in northern Minnesota in the run-up to Vancouver.
"You have to be friends off the ice in this sport," Shuster says. "We all enjoy giving each other a fair amount of digs and joke around a little bit, but we keep it light and have the common goal of helping each other perform their best."
Shuster believes a first men’s curling gold medal is an attainable target for the U.S. team, even though they are at a huge disadvantage to the likes of Sweden and Britain.
While these two top European teams are professional curlers, combining hard practice on the ice with daily gym sessions, the minimal funding the Americans receive barely covers their training expenses.
But like with everything else, Shuster is focusing on the positives.
"We played against three of medal favorites last week (in the Continental Cup) in Las Vegas -- Sweden, Norway and Great Britain -- and we basically played even against," Shuster said, "so I think we’ll be right in the mix in Sochi."