February 2007 College Athletes of the Month: Team USA

Five Minnesota students are now World Champions.

“It was a surreal experience I hope to live to tell my grandchildren about,” says Shane McKinlay, one of five members on Team USA Curling, and the U.S. delegation’s honorary flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.

Team USA (more locally known as Team Shuster, after its skip) is comprised of John Shuster, Jeff Isaacson, Chris Plys, Shane McKinlay and Kevin Johnson. They’re students — or in Isaacson’s case, a recent graduate — at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State University, Lake Superior College, Hibbing Community College and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, respectively.

School was far from their minds last month, though, as the five curlers, plus Coach Ed Lukowich, Team Leader Kellie Krake and a few family members, traveled to Pinerolo, Italy for the Winter World University Games January 17-27.

Team USA got off to a rough start, losing the opening match to Switzerland, but they won the next seven in a row. Then, after a close loss to Great Britain (6-4), Team USA completed the round-robin portion tied with Canada and Great Britain for first place. Each team had 7-2 records.

A shoot-out decided semifinals rankings and Minnesota landed second, facing — and eventually beating — powerhouse Canada (7-3), earning a spot to play in the final round for gold. That gave Team USA the chance for a re-match against earlier rivals Great Britain. They beat Britain handedly (9-4) to become Curling World Champions.

“We thought we should have beat them the first time so it’s nice to come back and show them who really was the better team,” Plys said after the win.

Photo Courtesy of USA Curling

His teammate, McKinlay, was a little more struck for words.

“I have always watched players win World Championships and become speechless when it’s time to be interviewed about their win. I always thought I would have something great to say when my time came, but when I was interviewed after our win, I was speechless and I finally understood how they felt.”

Although a world away from their Minnesota schools and homes, Team Shuster had strong support in Italy, from family and fellow curlers (many of which feel like both), to Coach Lukowich.

Lukowich is from Calgary, Alberta and has been the National Olympic Coach of USA Curling since 2001. He works with all the elite USA curling teams and oversees the teams and their coaches at World Championships and the Olympics. Lukowich was there with Debbie McCormick when she won women’s gold in Winnipeg in 2003, or when Pete Fenson won Olympic bronze at Torino in 2006.

This time around, Team Shuster didn’t have an active coach, so Lukowich was asked to step in.

“We worked hard together in our pre-game meetings to get ready for each match, and they went out there with the confidence and determination to get a victory.”

Curling coaches aren’t as front-and-center as coaches of other sports—they work with the team behind-the-scenes and advise strategies pre-game, but it’s the curlers that take on the brunt of game-time pressure. After regular practices, league games, tournaments and “throwin’ rocks daily,” Team Shuster proved they could handle it.

 

In the final, Shuster took advantage of the hammer in the first end by scoring two on GB. In the second end, GB came back with its own deuce, tying up the game. But Shuster kept the lead after that by scoring another two in the third to go up 4-2. When GB managed only one point in the fourth end, Team USA played strong to score four more with the hammer in the sixth and a steal of one in the seventh to widen the gap. After GB drew for one in the eighth, they ended the game by shaking hands. USA won gold with a final score of 9-4.

“Curling is a gentleman’s sport, so you won’t see the sort of celebrations you see in other sports. No parade or champagne,” McKinlay says. “We congratulated the other team on a good week and just tried to hold it in until we got to the locker room where we could really let loose.”

Sweden took bronze in the men’s competition, while on the women’s side, Canada took gold, Russia silver and Japan bronze. USA women, comprised of Jessica Schultz, Christina Schwartz, Megan O’Connell, Stephanie Sambor and Lysa Hambley, placed ninth.

“Curlers are a pretty tight group of people and that’s the best part about the game,” McKinlay says. “Our team and the women’s team have all known each other for years and had a lot of fun together. Being close with them was another advantage that our team had and the other teams didn’t.”

Photo Courtesy of USA Curling

Many of Minnesota’s other curlers will be competing this month in the USA National Championships beginning February 17. Of the seventeen teams, four are entirely Minnesotans and two others have Minnesota team members. Placing first would qualify a team (one men’s, one women’s) for Worlds.

Team Shuster will continue to compete — Plys is young enough to play in Junior Nationals this month — and throw rocks, working their way toward goals of additional World titles and Olympic runs.

There’s also school in their schedules, of course. Some curlers juggle curling and school (McKinlay takes online classes), while others — including Plys — have had to take off a semester or two because of intense training and competitions.

Still, the solidarity of college life is continually found on the ice. McKinlay encapsulates this the best:

“You won’t meet better people in the world than curlers, nor will you find a sport with more sportsmanship and camaraderie.”

That’s why Minnesota Monthly couldn’t select just one Team USA college athlete to recognize. It’s a true team sport and Shuster, Isaacson, Plys, McKinlay and Johnson each deservedly earned their World Champion bragging rights.

Editor’s Note: Results are in for the aforementioned Junior Nationals competition. Both the Minnesota men’s team (including Plys as skip) and Minnesota women’s team won gold and will represent USA at the 2007 World Junior Curling Championships in Eveleth, Minn., in March.

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