John Shuster and his Duluth-based curling team had been scheduled to make an appearance in Fargo last week for a chance at a national championship. Then their plans changed.
Team Shuster went on a tear through the final rounds of the Olympic men’s curling tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea, ending with a decisive victory over the Swedish team to win the United States’ first ever gold medal in the sport.
Thus, the trip to Fargo was cancelled. Instead, the team embarked on a whirlwind tour of the country’s media outlets to spread the good news of the sport with stones and brooms. Officially, the team pulled out of the national tournament in Fargo to focus on “media commitments to help grow the sport of curling.”
Without the newfound celebrities, the USA Curling Nationals continued as scheduled from March 3-10 at the Scheels Arena in Fargo, with a new team slotting in on the men’s side to replace them, and culminated last Saturday with Team Sinclair and Team Persinger taking home the titles on the women’s and men’s sides, respectively.
On the women’s side, Jamie Sinclair and her teammates rolled through the tournament without as much as a single hitch, winning all seven games in the round-robin before securing the title on the final throw of a 6-5 victory in the final against Team Christenson.
The national championship is the second straight for Sinclair, who suffered a tough loss in the finals of the Olympic trials last November in Omaha, Nebraska.
“[I have] just so much pride in this team for how we managed to rebound after a pretty devastating November,” Sinclair said. “We played great in the U.S. Open, great in Bern as runner-up and then we had a Slam to practice playing on championship ice like this. Then we come here and go undefeated, so I couldn’t be more proud of the team with how we rebounded from November.”
With the win, Sinclair earns her team a spot at the Women’s World Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario, next week.
On the men’s side, Team Persinger staved off a rally from Team McCormick to secure the championship in a decisive tenth end. McCormick was able to steal a point in the sixth, but Persinger and company stuck to their game plan and finished out the game strong, collecting four points over the final four ends to secure the victory.
“We did give up that steal, but I told the guys we had been playing well and getting deuces regularly with the hammer,” said veteran team member Rich Ruohonen. “We felt if we could get a deuce back that we’d be fine. We made some big shots. We had a couple of picks, which is how they got the deuce (in the fifth end). We felt like we were in control of the game and we played like we wanted to play all week. We played aggressive and made shots.”
For Ruohonen, the victory had a personal connection. The 47-year-old joined Team Persinger for this tournament after competing with Team McCormick at last fall’s Olympic trials.
Persinger, who owns a Cold Stone Creamery franchise in his day-to-day life, summed up the victory as best he could after the win.
“I don’t have any words to describe it,” said Persinger. “I never thought the way this season started that I’d be sitting here. We picked up this guy (Ruohonen) and here we are.”
Team Persinger will represent the United States at the World Men’s Curling Championships in Las Vegas from March 31 to April 8.
The gold medalists even made an appearance on the tournament’s final day to have a meet and greet with a long line of fans that stretched around the concourse and into the lobby of Scheels Arena.
Their newfound celebrity clearly still had not quite set in.
“You got to take a little bit of time every day just to reflect and make sure that it actually is happening,” team member Tyler George told Valley News Live. “There’s a point in every day that I don’t believe that what we’re doing is real.”
It was a momentous moment in curling history when the U.S. captured their first gold medal in February, but the national championships in Fargo opened the door for a new batch of American curlers to take the world stage.