VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Jason Smith came out of retirement for one final curling run with buddy John Shuster and his U.S. teammates. After the Olympics, Smith plans to quit again — perhaps for good.
“I don’t believe a word he says,” teammate John Benton said.
If this is indeed it for Smith, he’s going out with some brilliant shot-making. The U.S. men made it two straight wins with an 8-7, extra-end victory over Sweden on Friday, and they have Smith’s sure hand to thank.
“It’s not like I took 10 years off or something,” Smith said. “I’m happy I’m here. There’s no other place in the world I’d rather be, 0-4 or 0-9, I’d still want to be here. I have to go home for the summer and see if I miss it, then I’ll decide.”
A loss Saturday during the nine-game round-robin schedule would have all but eliminated the Americans. They stand only a remote chance of reaching the medal round after opening with four straight losses.
Shuster returned to the lineup after being benched for the team’s win over France on Friday following an 0-4 start.
But Smith threw the final rock for the second straight game and was nearly perfect. He scored a go-ahead deuce in the ninth and the winner in the 11th. Smith pumped his right arm when the last rock settled right where he wanted it.
“When that rock stopped today, I said, ‘That’s my boy,”’ said Shuster, who convinced Smith to curl one Sunday when they were teenagers in Chisholm, Minn. “He’s always been a big-game player and big shot-maker. He’s just always played third and that was his deal. I had no doubt he had the ability to do it. He made some big shots today.”
Smith converted a respectable 81 percent of his shots. That steadiness has provided the Americans a big boost considering they were down and out following an 0-4 start that featured three straight extra-end defeats.
“He’s been beautiful,” Benton said. “The thing I’ve always known about Jason is when he wants to, he can do anything he wants athletically. He’s that gifted.”
Smith, who will be the best man in Shuster’s wedding this summer, was living and working in Florida about three years ago when he got the call from Shuster. The two grew up a quarter-mile from each other in their hometown of 5,000 people in Minnesota’s Iron Range region.
Smith hadn’t curled in close to a year. He stepped back on the ice and amazed everybody with how quickly he returned to top form.
He’s showing that now, promoted to the more pressure-packed position of No. 4 shooter on a moment’s notice Thursday night after Shuster struggled in the clutch. Shuster looks much more comfortable, not to mention consistent, throwing second-to-last ahead of Smith.
Smith’s final offering of the sixth settled right into the button, like a golfer nailing crucial, long putt.
“I’m throwing the rock very well,” Smith said. “We’re having a good time out there. We’ve had fun the whole time, other than the tough losses. The crowd is going crazy — it’s hard not to have a good time. This is what curling’s all about.”
But after this tournament, the U.S. team will regroup. Alternate Chris Plys is already set to replace Smith for nationals next month.
“It would be a shame if Jason retires. We’ll see,” USA Curling chief operating officer Rick Patzke said. “We’ll just keep enjoying him while he’s here.”
Coach Phill Drobnick will again use a meeting Saturday night to determine Sunday’s lineup against world champion Britain. One thing’s for certain: Smith will throw the last stone.
“We knew going in this would be Jason’s last hurrah for a while,” Drobnick said. “He’s pretty confident in his decision. But you never know if we can make another Brett Favre out of him.”