BEIJING (AP) — The only way for the U.S. men’s curling team to win their entry into the Beijing Olympics is to win another gold medal.
Captain John Shuster carried the American flag into the Bird’s Nest for the opening ceremonies with speed skater Brittany Bowe Friday night. Shuster’s teammates, including two who were with him when the Americans won their first Olympic gold medal in curling four years ago, arrived right behind him, arm in arm.
“To be able to experience this, honestly, with another athlete, and to lead the entire American team has been the greatest honor of my career so far,” said Shuster, a five-time Olympian who also won a bronze medal in Turin. in 2006.
Shuster was the first curler to carry the American flag at the Olympics, a sign of the sport’s popularity since the Americans’ spectacular victory in Pyeongchang in 2018, when they survived five straight playoff games.
“I had the best seat in the house, baby. I was right behind him,” teammate Matt Hamilton said on Saturday.
Hamilton was still buzzing about a Photo her sister, Becca, a member of the women’s team, took over just behind the men’s team as they entered the stadium. It shows Hamilton, Chris Plys, John Landsteiner and alternate Colin Hufman arm in arm, with Shuster waving the flag and the Olympic rings in the background.
Hamilton called it “one of the most epic photos I’ve ever seen”. I don’t know if she realized it when she took it, but this picture is amazing and I’m super happy to be a part of it. It was kind of very fitting that John was up there and all four of us teammates behind, linked arm in arm, were supporting him, like we always do. It felt like a really perfect start to these Olympics.
Shuster and Hamilton said while there is pressure on the defending gold medalists, they won’t let it overwhelm them.
“Honestly, for us as athletes, the fact that we’ve reached the pinnacle of our sport…we’ll always be Olympic champions,” Shuster said. “It will be something that we can always take with us. It’s kind of letting the pressure on me. I’ve always had my heart set on going to the Olympics and having a good performance. To be on the top step of the podium I think took the pressure off and I think we’re really going to go out there and take the opportunity to try to defend.
Men’s competition begins Wednesday at the Ice Cube.
“I can’t take this medal away now,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “I’m happy to be back and obviously the first go-around went well. That’s all I know. Hoping to do it again.”
Hamilton said he had a moment after the 2018 Games where he had to decide if he was content with a gold medal or wanted another one. Plus, there’s the social aspect of being in the tight-knit curling community.
“I realized that I was still hungry and that I loved the competition,” he said. “Playing against all my friends is kind of a dream come true for all the other countries. They’re all great people. Some of the guys from the Swedish team came to my wedding the summer before the Olympics. So the friendships I’ve cultivated through curling are another big reason I just wanted to keep competing so I could go around and see all my buddies again.
Shuster’s Olympic career had its ups and downs. He won bronze in 2006, the first U.S. Olympic curling medal of any color, as leader of Pete Fenson’s team. He left to form his own rink, earning a trip to the Vancouver Games, but playing so badly he was benched.
After finishing last in 2010, Shuster won the US Trials again four years later, but only managed a ninth-place finish in Sochi. When USA Curling held a high performance camp of the top 10 players in the country, Shuster was not selected.
So he put together a quartet called “Team Rejects” and not only beat the federation-backed teams in the US trials, but also won gold in South Korea.
Now it’s Team Shuster again.
“We’re definitely a team,” Shuster said. “Someone said if you could describe your job, I was like, ‘I yell at my employees for a living and I’m treated like I’m their boss, but I’m not really their boss.'”
More from AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports