MINNEAPOLIS — Even from 6,000 miles away, Chris Plys could share the elation. His friends on the U.S. men's curling team — including skip John Shuster, a former teammate — had pulled off an improbable comeback at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, winning the country's first Winter Games gold medal in the sport.
"I was watching from my couch,'' said Plys, of Duluth. "Having played with and against those guys so much, it was really special to see what they were able to do."
If Team Shuster returns to the Olympics in February, Plys will have a much better view. Shortly after the Pyeongchang Games, Shuster chose him to fill a vacancy left by Tyler George's retirement. Since then, Plys has helped the foursome retain its place among the world's top teams, making it a favorite to win the men's competition at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb.
Six men's teams and six women's teams have qualified for the trials, which start Friday at Baxter Arena. In both the men's and women's tournaments, round-robin play will determine two finalists, who will move on to a best-of-three championship series. The winners will represent the U.S. at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, which begin Feb. 4.
Plys, 34, nearly made it to the Olympics in 2018, as part of a team that lost to Shuster's foursome in the trials finals. A world junior champion, U.S. champion and alternate on the Shuster-skipped Olympic team in 2010, he was instantly a top candidate to replace George.
His familiarity with the team — which also includes John Landsteiner of Duluth and Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wis. — made for a smooth transition. During Plys' three and a half years with the group, Team Shuster has won two U.S. men's championships and placed fifth at the world championships in 2019. Its top-six performance at the 2021 world championships qualified the U.S. for the Olympics.
"He was the person at the top of our list,'' said Shuster, 39, a Chisholm native who is pursuing his fifth Olympic berth. "Prior to 2018, I practiced on the sheet next to Chris all the time. I could see the work he was putting in, and the teammate and competitor he had become.
"I've always thought very highly of him. It was a pretty easy choice."
Team Shuster has played a limited schedule this season. It enters the trials at No. 25 in the World Curling Federation men's rankings, behind two other Minnesota-based trials qualifiers. Team Rich Ruohonen is the highest-ranked U.S. men's team at No. 21, and Team Korey Dropkin is No. 22.
After the 2018 Olympics, Plys originally planned to continue playing for Team Heath McCormick, which beat Team Shuster in the first game of the Olympic trials finals but lost the next two. Plys was surprised to hear George had retired, and humbled to get an invitation to fill his spot.
"(Team McCormick) had good success, and it was very tough to make that call, to let them know I was leaving," Plys said. "But I'd known John since I started in competitive curling. His record speaks for itself."
At first, Plys said, he felt a little bit of pressure as the newcomer on a high-profile team. But he had played with both Shuster and Hamilton at past international tournaments, and Shuster didn't expect him to replicate George's style or demeanor.
Though Plys throws third, as George did, he isn't the same kind of player. Shuster said George was more instinctive, while Plys has tried to perfect his position through study. Their roles are different, too; while Shuster often conferred with George on strategy, he prefers to let Plys maintain a tighter focus.
"Chris will get in on the discussions,'' Shuster said. "But the more I can allow him to be laser-focused on sweeping, shooting and calling line on my shots, he's just a weapon. It's a big difference, but it doesn't feel different.''
Team Shuster didn't play much in 2020-21 because of COVID-19-related tournament cancellations and travel restrictions. The group got lots of valuable practice time, and Plys, Shuster and Hamilton warmed up for the Olympic team trials with strong performances at last month's Olympic trials for mixed doubles.
Plys and Vicky Persinger won the tournament and will chase an Olympic berth at a qualifier in December. Next week, he'd like to wrap up a guys' trip to the Beijing Games.
"There are a lot of teams that have become quite good," Plys said. "But we're fortunate to have a lot of experience in high-stakes competition. I'm confident if we play our 'A' game, we'll be tough to beat."©2021 StarTribune. Visit at startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.