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What Does Winning an Olympic Gold Medal in Curling Do? Crazy Things

DULUTH, Minn. — The night he won gold at the Winter Olympics in February, Tyler George slept with the medal next to his pillow. He wanted to make sure it would still be there in the morning.

Nearly a year later, he still has barely let the medal out of sight, in large part because he has not been allowed to let it out of sight.

“I know that if I show up without that thing, they’ll send me home,” George said.

This is what happens when you are part of the first American men’s curling team to win an Olympic gold medal.

As invited guests at hockey games, golf tournaments and parades across the country, the members of the team have found that just about everyone wants a look at those medals. George and his four teammates — John Shuster, John Landsteiner, Matt Hamilton and Joe Polo — have appeared at award shows, state fairs, countless learn-to-curl events and at least one Broadway production (“The Play That Goes Wrong”). They have given pep talks to marathoners and delivered commencement speeches to high school students. They have sung karaoke with Jimmy Fallon and blown the Gjallarhorn at a Minnesota Vikings game.

Their medals have been kissed by dozens, caressed by hundreds and worn by thousands — literally thousands, they say. And forget about all the selfies. Between stops, the members of the team have gone so far as to bathe the faded ribbons from which the medal dangles.

“But it doesn’t bring that blue back,” Shuster, 36, said with a trace of resignation.

They did not expect their victory tour to last quite so long, not that they are complaining. But there was something charming and inspiring about their Olympic experience, which they capped with victories against Canada and Sweden to clinch the United States’ first gold in curling, the ice sport played with brooms and smooth granite rocks.

And so the invitations keep coming — as long as they remember to bring their medals with them.

“I had a feeling that it would be crazy,” George said, “but it’s so far beyond what any of us could have imagined.”

How crazy?

Hamilton’s distinctive bushy mustache was endorsed by Remington after the Olympics.

“I’m on a box, which is pretty neat,” he said.

Hamilton, 26, said he believed the team’s Everyman nature was a factor in its appeal. As he put it, “We’re not these chiseled gods.”

Landsteiner, 28, wonders if their medals have been the most widely traveled and heavily handled of any from the Pyeongchang Games. Among the luminaries who have tried them on: Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers; Nick Faldo, the three-time Masters winner, and Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor best known for his role as Carlton Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

The team became a big story at the Olympics after it bounced back from a slow start to defeat a series of curling behemoths in the medal round. By the time the team staged its upset for gold, it was the middle of the night back home in Minnesota, where George grew up learning the game at the Duluth Curling Club.

Sammy Perrella, a longtime friend and the proprietor of Sammy’s Pizza, watched the final on television with friends — “And I was driving that night, so I was on my best behavior,” he said — before he migrated to George’s parents’ house, which became party central after someone made a celebratory pit stop at the liquor store that Tyler runs with his father, Tom.

“All of a sudden about 30 people show up with all this booze,” Perrella said. “It went until like 10 in the morning. I was wrecked for two days!”

Back in South Korea, George and his teammates got an immediate sense that their lives had changed forever when Rick Patzke, the chief executive of U.S.A. Curling, handed them his cellphone as they were leaving the venue: It was Dave Grohl, the lead singer of the Foo Fighters, who had reached out through a mutual connection to offer his congratulations.

“I remember thinking, ‘Really? Is this how it’s going to be?’ ” Patzke said.

In a word: Yes.

After the Olympics, the team made the difficult decision to pass on an opportunity to defend their national championship at a tournament in North Dakota. They went to New York instead, where they appeared on “The Tonight Show” and rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“We looked around, like, ‘Well, we could be in Fargo right now,’ ” George said.

At the Minnesota Twins home opener in April, each member of the team threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Hamilton rolled his toward home plate, as if he were curling. George, a former all-conference pitcher in high school, decided to test out the old wing and uncorked a wild throw that whizzed past the catcher.

“Knew I was in trouble as soon as I released it,” George said. “Damn near killed that guy.”

He got a redo a few weeks later when the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, invited them to throw out another batch of first pitches.

“I think I bounced that one,” George said, “but at least I didn’t kill anybody.”

While golfing in the BMW Charity Pro-Am in May, Hamilton and Shuster broke out their gold medals to use as ball markers before putts, though Shuster was the only one who got heckled.

“Awfully humble, aren’t we?” a woman shouted from the gallery.

But that sort of reaction has been the exception. Through all their experiences — meeting Jack Nicklaus as special guests at a golf tournament in Ohio, dropping pucks at N.H.L. games, riding on the curling float at the National Cherry Festival — the team members have found that their gold medals have a gravitational pull all their own.

“When you hand it to an adult for a couple seconds, they’re like a child again,” Hamilton said. “They’re captivated by it.”

George said he had enjoyed being able to share it with so many people, and in so many unconventional ways.

“It is the world’s greatest coaster,” he said.

George and his teammates often receive appearance fees — they need to make a living, after all — but Hamilton said he thought their success at the Olympics would have generated more revenue from mainstream sponsors. Curling, however, remains a fringe sport in most of the United States, despite their best efforts. And the process of negotiating a movie deal — another big aspiration — has been fraught with challenges, though they are optimistic that their story could be coming (someday) to a big screen near you.

“It’s a learning process,” Hamilton said. “We’ve tried to surround ourselves with people who know what they’re doing.”

George announced that he was stepping away from competition in May, citing fatigue. He actually had felt burned out a couple of years ago, he said, but the Olympics were an unfulfilled goal. He now travels the globe as an ambassador for U.S.A Curling.

“We’ve never seen this type of enthusiasm from people who want to learn more about the sport,” he said. “It’s been amazing to see.”

Chris Plys replaced George on the team, which has resumed its competitive schedule in earnest. Plys, who did not compete at the Olympics, used to feel guilty when fans would congratulate him for winning gold, because he did not actually win anything. So he would correct them. But it got to be too much.

“I’ve stopped explaining to them that I wasn’t on the team,” Plys said. “I’m like, ‘Thanks! The Olympic Village was great! Can’t eat any more bulgogi!’”

As for George, he does not spend much time in his apartment in Duluth these days. He thinks of it as more of a storage facility where he occasionally sleeps when he is not on the road with his medal. He still has a cat calendar from 2013 up on the wall near his kitchen. A congratulatory letter from Vice President Mike Pence sits atop a pile of mail.

On occasion, George thinks back to the night that changed his life: the team’s 10-7 victory over Sweden at Gangneung Curling Centre. During the match itself, George did not allow himself to entertain the dream of winning gold until it was practically assured.

“Because it would have been too much pressure if we’d thought about what was ahead of us — the places we’d go and the people we’d meet,” he said. “None of us had any idea.”

Source

neallesh@yahoo.co.uk

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