The United States Men’s Curling team finally got its first win Wednesday in Sochi. So far, the 2014 winter games have not gone well for the American curlers. With the men’s 9-5 victory over Denmark, the men’s and women’s teams are a combined 1-5. “We got a little behind the eight-ball again,” team member Jeff Isaacson said after losing Tuesday. “We need to dig deep, work hard, and hopefully the ‘w’s’ will start coming.”
But these aren’t your average Olympians, who spend every waking moment gunning for Olympic glory. Every four years, American viewers gaze inquisitively on the odd-looking sweepers as journalists beat the sports’ “shuffleboard on ice” analogy to death. Roughly 16,000 players are registered with USA Curling, the sport’s American association. But you can’t make a living off American competitions. These are old-school Olympians.
This year’s men’s team features four Minnesotans: a restaurant manager, a middle-school science teacher, an engineer, and a college student. Isaacson, 30, has to travel home overnight from competitions. Once he made it with just enough time to change clothes and get to his Gilbert, Minn., middle school classroom.
“We curl because we enjoy the game,” Isaacson told the Minneapolis StarTribune. “It’s given me an opportunity to see the world.”
John Shuster is the team’s 31-year-old captain, known as the skipper in curling. He manages a Pickwick steakhouse in Duluth, Minn., curls, and helps take care of his newborn son. He’s seeking redemption after a disappointing 2-7 finish in the 2010 Vancouver games soured the experience.
Civil engineer John Landsteiner, 23, didn’t get his degree last spring to help him navigate a 44-pound rock across the ice. And Jared Zezel, 22, had to take a semester off his senior year at Bemidji State University to get ready for the games. Curling is not glamourous. But it’s worth it, team members say.
“I would be losing money for sure if I wasn’t working,” Isaacson told the StarTribune from Sochi. “I’m working and curling just to stay even, really. It costs a lot of money and a lot of time.”
That’s because American curlers don’t get travel expenses paid before they qualify for the Olympics. The team had to pay out of their own pockets to travel to pre-qualification tournaments in Canada and Europe. The road to Sochi cost a good $25,000, and while the team has a few sponsors, most of the money comes from selling merchandise. But they don’t have a sophisticated e-commerce website, just a low-tech Google spreadsheet any Gmail user can create.
“Any money we make at a tournament goes into our team account to help pay things off, then hopefully we break even,” Zezel told Mashable’s Sam Laird. “Otherwise, we just make up the difference ourselves.”
Winning a medal in Sochi would certainly help. But the team has little to show for its effort so far. Despite shooting well, they’re 1-2 in the nine-game round robin qualifiers. “We have to take it one game at a time,” Landsteiner told Mashable before the games began. “If we focus too much on the big picture, we will lose focus on the here and now. One shot at a time.”
The men play the team from Great Britain, which has a 2-1 record, on Thursday at 8 a.m. EST. From there, the road to the Sochi medal rounds gets tougher. But back in Gilbert, Minn., Isaacson is already a winner even if he never gets to the medal podium. Before he left for Sochi, his school held an assembly to send him off, presenting him with a giant gold medal as students chanted “U-S-A.”