GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – They understood it was an unconventional choice, maybe even a daring one. Yet when John Shuster put it up for discussion, the vote was unanimous: His team was going to wear white pants for its opening game at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Labor Day is long past, Memorial Day is a distant dream and most curlers’ bodies aren’t exactly chiseled from stone. But the greatest fashion statement is confidence, and Team Shuster possessed that in spades on the first day of the Olympic men’s curling tournament. Rocking its head-to-toe winter whites, it defeated Korea 11-7 on Wednesday, turning the ice sheet at Gangneung Curling Centre into its own personal runway.
The game wasn’t quite as pristine as Team Shuster’s attire. After it rolled to an 8-3 lead, a wobble in the sixth end pulled Korea within 8-6. But Shuster said the fashion risk kept the mood light, helping the team make a different kind of statement as he kicked off his fourth Olympics.
“We’re not going to compete with the Norwegians,” Shuster said, referring to the nation that made crazy curling pants a thing. “We know that.
“But it helped us relax a little bit. We had a few laughs about it. It was fun to get out there, and it helped loosen us up for sure. I think we were looking good out there.”
Their sartorial sense might be a matter of taste, but there was no arguing with their execution for much of the game. Shuster, a Chisholm native and Duluth-area resident, hand-picked his foursome three years ago and was quickly convinced of its potential. With Tyler George and John Landsteiner of Duluth and Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wis., Shuster has finished in the top five at the past three world championships — winning bronze in 2016 — and captured two U.S. titles.
He was eager to improve on his finishes at the past two Olympics, when he skipped the U.S. to ninth in 2014 and 10th in 2010. Donning the color of a blank canvas during Wednesday’s opener seemed like a good metaphor for the new chapter he hopes to write.
An early mistake by Korean skip Kim Chang-Min allowed the U.S. to score two points in the first end. The Americans gave it right back when an error of their own tied it 2-2, but they remained unruffled and rolled to an 8-3 lead with a pair of three-point ends.
Still, curling games can take sharp, unpredictable turns, as the U.S. was reminded in the sixth end. On two attempted double takeouts, Shuster could only knock out one Korean stone, opening a path for Korea to score three and pull within 8-6. He calmed the waters with a beauty of a shot in the seventh end, using his deft touch and precision to nudge Korea’s rock off the button and through a slim gap to earn two points.
“It wasn’t the best we could put out there, but it was very solid,” Shuster said. “We executed the basic shots, and when we got misses and half-shots from the other team, we capitalized. It was a good way to go out and get our feet under us.”
After the game, everyone wanted to take credit for the pants. Hamilton said he convinced his reluctant teammates to try them on. George claimed he was first to suggest they give it a shot in a Tuesday practice, even though “they were a little see-through,” and Shuster said he put the white-on-white look in play.
Asked if he might have more surprises up his sleeve — or his pants leg — Shuster was coy.
“You’re just going to have to watch and see,” he said.