Sochi, Russia • After finishing a disappointing 10th at the 2010 Olympics, Jeff Isaacson was finished with curling, his joy for the sport sapped and commitment exhausted.
He retreated to his career as a junior high school science teacher at Gilbert Junior High School in Virginia, Minn., and avoided throwing rocks for a year. Isaacson purged the bad vibes of Vancouver but not his passion that allowed him to travel the world and compete against the best.
“I still love curling so that’s what brought me back,” he said Sunday. “I missed that so I was happy to get back into it and I was happy to make it with this team back to the Olympics.”
Four years later a rededicated Isaacson returns to the Olympics with three fellow Minnesotans on the U.S. men’s curling team, which is targeting a medal and redemption in Sochi.
Certainly for the program but also returning skip John Shuster of Duluth, who shouldered the blame for a 2-7 record in Vancouver that ruined the United States’ podium chances and momentum from its 2006 breakout bronze medal.
“It wasn’t a good week for anyone but in particular he got a lot of heat for it in Vancouver,” said Isaacson, who returns as Shuster’s vice skip. “It’s great to have him come back and show that he can do it. Do well, do good things for U.S. curling and be on the medal podium.”
Three succinct goals that indicate what is at stake for the men’s team, which opens round-robin competition Monday against Norway. Qualifying for the Olympics let out a huge sigh of relief at U.S. Curling Association headquarters in Stevens Point, Wis.
The Winter Games are curling’s biggest marketing initiative. It has become appointment television for hardcore fans and curiosity seekers lured by the intricacy of the competition and intimacy of the coverage. Each player wears a microphone, bringing viewers into strategy sessions and amplifying skips’ directives to their sweepers.
“Combined with some good commentary (it) helps anyone understand it no matter how much they’ve seen,” said U.S. alternate Craig Brown. “It seems so open. It seems like an everyman’s sport more so than the guys flying 30 feet through the air on the halfpipe.
“It’s really a great game. Once people had a chance to see it during the Olympics, that’s why it took off. I’m not really surprised about it.”
Since curling debuted at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics USA Curling’s membership has increased 41 percent, to about 17,000 registered players at 165 clubs in 42 states, according to Derek Brown, Director of High performance.
The Scottish Brown defeated Shuster’s team at the 2010 Olympics competing for Great Britain. He was hired in 2011 to implement a long-term strategy for developing and sustaining world-class teams while growing the sport domestically.
“After Vancouver, there was huge interest created even though the U.S. teams weren’t winning medals,” Brown said.
“Just the exposure of the sport, everyone wanted to try it. There’s traditionally a big bump in membership after the Olympics. All of our clubs are gearing up for new members and people wanting to try the sport for the first time.”
Brown likes the makeup of the 2014 team and the hard road it took to Sochi.
Shuster is the only three-time Olympian and won bronze in 2006 while Isaacson is experience his second Games.
Debuting is Jared Zezel, a Bemidji State student from Hibbing, John Landsteiner, a civil engineer in Duluth and Brown of Madison, Wis.
The team rolled over heavy competition at the Olympic trials in North Dakota in November to advance to the qualifying tournament December in Germany, where a top-two finish was required to make it to Sochi.
Shuster guided them to five straight victories to close out the tournament and punch their ticket to Russia.
“Our strength is when we see opportunities, especially this season, we’ve done a good job capitalizing on those,” Shuster said Sunday. “We’ve been practicing hard. I think everyone, the last two days, has been throwing the rock pretty darn good. I expect if we perform at the level we’ve been performing I expect we’ll be in the mix at the end of the week.”
The 10 teams compete against each other this week with the top four advancing to the Feb. 19-21 medal round. After Norway the United States plays China, Denmark, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and two-time defending gold medalist Canada.
Brown figures the United States needs to win six of its preliminary matches to advance to the medal round. He likes the balance of Shuster and Isaacson’s experience with new comers like Zezel and Landsteiner.
Shuster was just 27 when he led the United States into Vancouver. He is now 31, married to wife, Sara, and father to their 9-month old son, Luke. Shuster insists he has left behind the disappointment of 2010 and says the United States is poised again to compete for a medal.
“Being a skip the second time, I feel a calmness I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced, especially on the international stage,” he said. “Curling’s definitely my passion, something I put a ton of time into, but I get to come home and I have a 9-month-old son and a wife … they’ll support me but at the same time they’ll love me no matter what happens. That’s taken a ton of pressure off.”