Winning the U.S. Olympic curling trials should have been cause for celebration, but John Shuster and his crew knew their task was only half complete. The Duluth skip and his Minnesota teammates still had to qualify for a place in the 2014 Winter Olympics, leaving them with some serious work to do before the party could start in earnest.
The foursome finally got to raise that long-delayed toast Sunday. They rallied to beat the Czech Republic 8-5 in the last game of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Fuessen, Germany, to claim the final spot in the Sochi Olympics. Shuster and teammates Jeff Isaacson of Gilbert, Minn., Jared Zezel of Hibbing, Minn., and John Landsteiner of Duluth, Minn., won five consecutive games to end the tournament and came back from a 3-2 deficit late in the final match.
Shuster earned his third consecutive trip to the Olympics in dramatic fashion. His team trailed after seven of 10 ends in a tense, back-and-forth game, then scored five in the eighth end to take command. Their victory puts four more Minnesotans on the Olympic team; the women's curling team, which already had locked up its berth, includes Jessica Schultz of Minneapolis and alternate Allison Pottinger of Eden Prairie.
"The butterflies of winning for an opportunity like this, they never get old,'' said Shuster, 31, who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics as the lead for Pete Fenson's team. "That's why we play this game. I'm extremely proud of how well our team has played the entire season, and especially here, when we had our backs against the wall.''
Shuster's team won the U.S. Olympic curling trials in November in Fargo, N.D. It was forced into the eight-team qualifier because the U.S. was ranked eighth in the combined standings of the past two world championships. The top seven teams, plus Russia as the Olympic host, earned automatic berths in the 10-team Olympic tournament.
The final two teams were decided via the qualifier. After a 2-2 start -- including a loss to the Czechs in Tuesday's opener -- Shuster's team won three consecutive games. Germany and the Czech Republic topped the standings and played for the first Olympic spot, while the U.S. had to beat Korea in a Saturday tiebreaker to keep its hopes alive.
It won 7-5, then faced the Czechs on Sunday for the last spot. With the U.S. trailing 3-2, superb throws by Zezel and Isaacson put two U.S. stones in scoring position in the eighth end. A Shuster takeout left the U.S. with four stones in the house, and after Czech skip Jiri Snitil failed to execute a difficult takeout, Shuster put his final rock in the house to score five points and give his team an insurmountable lead.
The victory kept intact the U.S. streak of qualifying for every Olympic men's tournament since curling became an Olympic sport in 1998. Isaacson, who was on the 2010 Olympic team skipped by Shuster, will make his second Winter Games appearance; Zezel and Landsteiner will make their first.
"I've been dreaming about this for a long time,'' said Zezel, 22, a student at Bemidji State. "That's why you curl, with the main goal of getting to the Olympics. We just keep getting better and better. Everything is finally happening.''
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