Illustrated by Zack Causey
A first-place conversation with gold medal Olympic curler Matt Hamilton on the unlikely success of a “reject” team winning it all.
At the beginning of 2018, audiences could be forgiven for not knowing how much they would end up pulling for the US men’s Olympic curling team—or really what curling was (for the record it’s something like pushing a big old rock down the ice with a broom). The team had only ever medaled one time, with a bronze and was a constant underdog in a sport typically dominated by countries with a little more ice. But an unlikely team of literal Olympic “rejects,” who’d been passed by for the team originally, made their way onto the ice and after a few tough losses, rallied into the semi-finals and ultimately the gold. We sat down with mustachioed fan-favorite Matt Hamilton to learn a bit about him and how one comes into curling, the unlikely tale of how the US made it to the top of the podium, what it was like performing in the doubles with his sister Becca and what kind of breakfast food he would like to be featured on.
For those who might not be up to speed, where does curling fit into the wide world of sport?
Matt Hamilton: It was kind of developed, in my opinion, as a way to get through the winter. And it’s kind of what it’s used for now. I would compare it to bowling in the sense that your average Joe who goes out and does it is just doing it for fun.
Then you have guys like me who go out six days a week, hit the gym in the summer and go to the ice rink in the winter and train their butts off to try and be the best in the world. Kind of like professional golf. Everyone can play it, but it takes a few people to be like, fantastic at it.
WB: How were you introduced to curling?
MH: Let me paint a little picture for you. It’s 2003. I’m in 8th grade and my dad tells me that he picked up curling as a winter hobby. One of his buddies was doing it and asked him if he wanted to try it. I was like, cool sounds like fun.
I’m an indoor soccer player. I played goalie. So I had no time for curling. So dad invites me to a game and I watched him play. He’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to play eight ends, or innings, and then we’ll come off, and we kind of just hang out. I’m like, “Got it. Sounds great. I’ll sit and watch behind the glass, do homework.” After about an hour and five minutes, they quit.
My dad comes in, I was like, “What’s going on?” He says, “Oh, the other team was just better. We didn’t really have a chance this game, so we just called it early so we could just come in and have a drink.” I was like, “Hold on, let me get this straight. You got your butts kicked so bad that you admitted defeat so you could just hang out with these guys?” And then my dad says, “That’s exactly it. What do you think of curling?” And I’m like, “Dad, curling is lame.”
WB: So when did you start playing?
MH: So it was January or February when I watched my dad. Eight months later, I’m in high school now, one of my buddies goes, “Hey, Matt, the Madison Curling Club, we need a new player on Thursday nights. Do you want to play?” I’m like, “Yeah, that sounds pretty cool.” So when my dad tries to introduce me to it, it’s lame. A kid my age tries to introduce me to it and it’s cool. I gave it a whirl.
So, starting out I’m playing with my friend Gilbe, and his uncle Mike (a legend), I’m thinking “I gotta savor this moment a little bit.” And we won our first match but after the match, I asked Mike, “We kind of got dominated at the start of that game but at the last moment you just had the right shot… how did that work?” And he goes, “You don’t have to make a hundred percent of your shots all the time to win. But if you make a hundred percent of the right shots, you can still win.”
I took to the ice pretty well. So my first two shots, I totally flamed out and crashed in the game right in the middle of the ice. But after my fourth or fifth game I started to develop that slide and I actually got pretty good. And this Mike Fraboni (the legend) guy is like, “You’re definitely better than your average first-year curler, I’m really pleased with you.” That right there, that kind of encouragement really motivated me. I’m someone who’s very much motivated off praise and not like some people who are motivated off, “You suck, you can do better than that.” That’s some people’s MO. Mine is more, “Wow, that was really great, you can do better.”
WB: What’s the most common question you get about curling?
MH: Are you the thrower guy or the brusher guy?
“You don’t have to make a hundred percent of your shots all the time to win. But if you make a hundred percent of the right shots, you can still win.”
WB: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of curling?
MH: Curling was first introduced a long time ago, but only in the ’20s as an Olympic sport. It was a demonstration sport back then. It never made it into the Olympics until Nagano, Japan which was the first winter Olympics that curling was a full-fledged medal sport.
And the winning team was… I want to say Switzerland over Canada. Mike Harris was the Canadian guy. Apparently, he had the flu in the finals and just was terrible. That was the start of Olympic curling as we know it. In 2005, the year before that, the Olympic trials were actually held in Madison. So I’d been curling for about a year at that time and now the US Olympic Trials are in my backyard.
Through the next two Olympic trials, John Shuster (captain) was on both those teams, but kind of had a rough showing at the Olympics and finished in the bottom half both times. We go to the Olympic trials in 2018 and we win when I’m on the team with John, and we go to the Olympics and have our historic run and win Olympic gold for the first time in United States curling history.
WB: So how did the gold-winning team come together?
MH: This team was formed after John’s second go-around at the 2014 Olympics where he finished second to last or third to last. And the United States Olympic Committee and USA Curling had invested basically eight years into John. So he was the guy. I don’t think they really wanted him to be a part of this new program they were putting together called the “High Performance Program” where they’re going to basically handpick 10 players, handpick the two teams of five, with maybe one spare player, and those were going to be the teams that they were going to give all their money to and if you’re not a part of it you had to find your own way. It’s still possible but, you gotta earn your own money elsewhere.
So Craig Brown, a Madison guy that I looked up to, I was on his team for four years prior to the 2014 season, so 2010 through 2014. And we had a pretty good team.
Anyway, Craig gets picked onto this High Performance Program and I don’t, and John Shuster doesn’t, and some of the players on his team do. So realistically it’s the top 10 players in the United States on that team. John and I are maybe 11 and 12. Tyler George, who didn’t even try out for the High Performance team, was our teammate. He didn’t think that’s how curling teams should form; he thought they should be through friendships.
And that’s kind of how we did it. I got a phone call from Shuster and he said “Yeah, I didn’t make it either so do you want to join my team of rejects?” So that season we gelled really well, everyone was playing great and we ended up going to the US Nationals. Lost one game, but won the US Nationals.
Next was the World Championships, we ended up losing a tiebreaker to get into the semi-finals and then the United States High Performance Program says, “Guys, we made a mistake. We’re going to add another team and we pick you guys because obviously we screwed up.”
So our team of rejects ended up winning two in a row, the last two of the Olympic Trial finals, to earn our spot at the Olympics in 2018.
WB: One word to describe each of your teammates
MH: John Shuster, passionate. Tyler George, confident. Landsteiner, calculated. And me, clown. Or maybe cheerleader. Cheerleader is probably better.
WB: The Olympic curling highlight reel is playing in your head, what’s the music?
MH: Ooh. I have a playlist on Spotify that I use for every game during the Olympics. There are about eight songs that I listen to. You know honestly, that year, “Feel it Still,” by Portugal. The Man came out and I’d been listening to them since like 2010, their The Satanic Satanist. So when that “Feel it Still” song came out, I think I played it like twice or three times at my wedding and then it definitely was on a playlist for the games.
WB: Some athletes are on Wheaties boxes, what breakfast food packaging would you be on?
MH: Most want to, or most applicable? Because I’m from Wisconsin and not necessarily an Adonis so probably like breakfast sausages would be the most applicable. I’m not much of a breakfast person, honestly. If I could be on anything, I’d want to be on my own coffee, I’m a huge coffee drinker. But yes, I’m probably on the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich. Everybody loves them but no one likes to look at them.
WB: Great news: They’re making a movie about your Olympic run. Who plays you?
MH: You know, so there was a little bit of that online, there were some faux movie posters of it called, “Miracurl.” And one of the movie posters had Ryan Gosling as me. I was like, “I wish.” But funnily enough, some random guy who thought he was a lookalike of me posted one of himself on a movie poster and said, “Hey, if anyone can play Matt Hamilton, it should be me.” And the first guy that replies to him is Nick Offerman who says, “Get in line, son.”
WB: Rocky had Mickey, the Jamaican bobsled team had John Candy. What character pushes the US Olympic Curling Team?
MH: Mr. T Before the final, we actually got a call from Mr. T who gave us a little pump-up speech. He said, “Curling is cool, fool.” I kid you not. So we actually got a call before the final against Sweden from Mr. T, so he’s gotta be our guy.
WB: Was there ever a point that you ever felt like giving up, and what kept you going, if so?
MH: After I finished high school I got a call from the defending US National Champions for juniors asking, “Matt, do you want to play lead for us?” And then I had to choose, am I going to go down this curling path and see where it takes me? Or college. And you know, juniors is only until you’re 21, so that’s like, that’s two to three years of college and if I was going to give curling a fair crack, I couldn’t really give college a fair crack too. I wasn’t particularly great in school anyway. And my dad said something very funny to me. He goes, “Uh, time to choose between curling and school?” I’m like, “Yeah, I think I kinda know.” He goes, “So, here’s my opinion, Matt. You’re only going to be 21… or, under 21 for the next three years, and colleges will always take your money.” I went with that and next year I moved to Duluth to be closer to the team so we could practice weekly and really develop strong chemistry. We actually ended up winning the Junior World Championships and we also got bronze the year after. So, it was a good move.
WB: What does the pre-match ritual look like for you guys?
MH: Landsteiner likes to get to the rink fairly early. He likes to get mentally prepared, he likes to stretch and do his thing. I’m a little looser. I don’t necessarily have a really strict pregame routine. I’ve got certain things that I’ll do, but I don’t need as much time as Steiner. So I kind of bend my pregame routine to whatever anyone else needs on the team. So we might go to the game like an hour and 15 minutes early and that’s when I’ll listen to my music for 30 minutes and literally just do nothing while all my teammates do what they need to do. I’m not a good one to ask for a pregame. I just listen to my music, get my shoes on, and get ready to fuck someone up.
WB: How is it to have to perform on TV under the pressure of the Olympics, and did that pressure ever get to you?
MH: So maybe you can tell by the way this interview is going, I am not a very shy person. I probably do play better in front of crowds than I do in a curling club in front of nobody, or like 15 to 20 people. The cameras at the Olympics weren’t even man-powered. I’ve always played in front of someone manning a camera. These were all electronically manned. So there weren’t even a lot of people around. So the camera really didn’t represent the millions of people watching. It’s just a camera. The Olympics is pretty unique in the sense that I knew I was playing in front of millions but it didn’t feel like it. Not until you got off and you lost the game and Twitter totally shreds you to pieces. That’s when you realize you were playing in front of millions.
WB: Why do you think audiences were so drawn to you guys during the games?
MH: I think with the doubles especially, we were brother-sister playing together at the Olympics, who doesn’t love that story? If you don’t love that story, you have no soul. Then when we got to the men’s, it was kind of unique because people had tuned in for the beginning of the men’s, and then we went two and four to start our first six games, and everyone just kind of wrote us off. Like, “Oh, typical US at the Olympics, no big deal.” And then we won a couple of games in a row and all of a sudden we’re in the Olympic semi-finals. And then in those last two games, the attendance and the audience picked way, way up. People were like, “Hey, they’re still in it, we still have a chance.” That’s when people got hype again. And I know we felt it, we definitely felt it out there.
WB: And what about you specifically? The audience was pretty drawn to you.
MH: We have had a sports psychologist for the last two Olympics. Typically with curling teams, the skip, the captain of the team, the John Shuster, he’s the guy. He’s the one that gets all the media, and he’s also the one that lost the game when we lose. He’s the quarterback. So when I was talking to the sports psych I told her I liked getting engaged with the crowd and she said, “Go ahead and do that.” Think it took a little pressure off John where it felt like not all eyes were on him all the time. I don’t know if John necessarily will corroborate that.
WB: What was the bigger honor, winning gold or having a bobblehead created in your likeness?
MH: Gold medal is really cool, right? But I had 2,018 bobbleheads made of me. Maybe it’s apples and oranges.
WB: How do you feel… how did your life change the most after winning the gold?
MH: The attention. People give a shit.. and the fact that people want to pay $20 for a video of me saying, “Hey, happy birthday so-n-so.” I’m just a normal dude, but they’re like, “Can we see the medal and you wish a happy birthday to Andrea, who watched the Olympics two years ago.” To be honest, it’s the coolest thing ever. Or the fact that I got to go on Fallon. I won the Olympics and got to go on Fallon again. There are superstar celebrities on Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Fallon’s a superstar celebrity. And the second time I went on the show, he came up and he’s like, “Hammy, give me a big hug,”
WB: What’s something you wish more Americans knew about curling?
MH: I wish they knew how accessible it is. There are way more curling clubs and organizations for curling than people think. All around the US, in Texas, California. There’s an Arizona curling club. There’s South Carolina, North Carolina… they’re out there. So if you have ever been interested in it, I would be willing to bet that you’re within an hour or two of a curling club.
I just listen to my music, get my shoes on, and get ready to fuck someone up.