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Fourth-Place Medal

Jeff Isaacson, junior high chemistry teacher, is an Olympic ‘Behind The Curling’ story

Greg Wyshynski
Fourth-Place Medal
Jeff Isaacson
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FUSSEN, GERMANY - DECEMBER 14: John Landsteiner of USA (L) and team mate Jared Zezel (R) sweep after Jeff Isaacson throws a rock during the Olympic Qualification Tournament tie-breaker match between USA and Korea on December 14, 2013 in Fussen, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Bongarts/Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia – Jeff Isaacson is a student of music history.

He’s studied the breakup of The Eagles in 1980, when Glenn Frey and Don Henley needed to be on separate coasts due to their animosity. He’s examined Roger Waters’ bitter departure from Pink Floyd, calling the band he founded “a spent force.”

But he never thought he’d have his own “break up the band” story.

Call it VH1’s “Behind The Curling.”

[Photos: Intense faces of Olympic curling]

Isaacson was an Olympic curler for the U.S. in 2010, where the team went 2-7 and finished 10th in the tournament. The plan was to begin regrouping, training and focusing on Sochi 2014.

Then Isaacson left the group.

“I needed a break from curling. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. When you get to that point … well, we’re not doing it for the money,” he said. “It didn’t feel the same anymore. It wasn’t fun anymore."

But like many classic rock bands that fracture, there’s always the chance for the reunion tour.

“You have your ups and downs. This member goes one way, this member goes another. And then you get back together and try to make one more run,” said Isaacson, 30.

All it took was a desperate phone call from the team skipper.

***

Jeff Isaacson is a chemistry teacher when he’s not an Olympic curler.

In 2010, he was a substitute teacher in the Gilbert, Minn., school system, gradually working his way into a job teaching science at Eveleth-Gilbert Junior High. Like other Olympic athletes in “secondary” sports like curling, it’s a necessity to keep that job while also training for the Games. It becomes a challenge to juggle both passions when one of them requires a multitude of travel and financial sacrifice.

“We have a tight budget,” said Isaacson.

[Photos: What do different countries pay Olympians]

When the U.S. curling team could compete in the months leading up to the Olympics, it would mean complicated connecting flights to bring down costs. It would mean road trips instead of air travel, like the time the curlers hitched their tent camper and drove all the way from Minnesota to Saskatchewan for a tournament, sleeping at a local camp ground.

It’s a sport that simply doesn’t have the sponsorship opportunities of others, although the U.S. curlers count Dairy Queen amongst their backers in Sochi.

Hey, he’s a chemistry teacher -- has he ever considered the “Breaking Bad” fund raising technique?

[Video: Russia claims first gold of Sochi games]

“I haven’t gotten to that point yet. We’re going to try to avoid that,” Isaacson said with a laugh. “We’d like to be comfortably enough where we don’t have to worry about getting back to work on time."

Fact is, Isaacson wasn’t comfortable after the Vancouver Olympics. He is, after all, a science teacher -- he can tell when the chemistry is off.

The travel became too arduous, with 21 straight days of curling at one point and summer tournaments that were out of their typical schedule. The mix of curlers on the team changed too, and Isaacson wasn’t connecting with the vibe.

So he quit. Walked away. Decided to get off the road and get on with life.

But his skipper decided he needed to get the band back together.

John Shuster, 31, has been a part of three U.S. Olympic curling teams. He’s seen players come and go, and it happened again when Zach Jacobson left the team in the 2012-13 season. “We decided Jeff was going to be our first choice” as a replacement, said Shuster.

[Photos: Best of #SochiProblems]

He just wasn’t sure what the answer was going to be.

“He just wasn’t all that confident in doing it all again,” said Shuster. “So I told him, ‘Look, if there’s any drive in you left, this is something that’s going to work out well.’”

Isaacson considered it and agreed to reform the band. “I wanted to be on the road, traveling again. Being around the curling culture,” he said.

Shuster was pleased, but a little surprised, considering how Isaacson’s other life was progressing.

“He’s seeing this as taking a step back. He had a master's degree in teaching administration. This is a huge sacrifice for him, but at the same time a huge opportunity too,” he said.

***

Jeff Isaacson is a curler, the vice skip of the U.S. Olympic team.

It’s a sport that’s graduated from novelty to an suprising ratings winner in Olympic coverage. Part of it is the sheer oddity of it – the stone, the brooms, the yelling. Part of it is the familiarity of it – it’s basically shuffleboard at the bar, without the sawdust on the table; and part of it is that many of the participants look like guys who you’d expect to see on a couch with a beer in their underwear watching the Olympics, instead of competing in them.

Heck, it’s a sport famous for both teams competing on the ice and then hitting the bar afterwards together for postgame beverages. (A tradition, it should be said, that doesn’t carry over to the Olympics.)

[Video: Who is watching whom in Sochi?]

“Curling is a such a TV sport,” said U.S. curler Craig Brown. “It seems so open, so … I hate to say this … an everyman’s sport, rather than someone flying through the air on a halfpipe.”

The curlers sometimes bristle at the “schmoes throwing stones” stereotype, despite its observable accuracy. “It’s all good,” said Isaacson. “Media coverage is good for the game. It’s nice that people can relate to us.”

It’s easy to relate to Isaacson. He’s a low-key guy – a perfect contrast to the louder Shuster – who reminds you of that unassuming teacher you had that would lace his lessons with goofy humor.

And his students love him.

Here’s the send-off they gave him before leaving for Sochi, where they gave him an obscenely large medal:

“They don’t like when I’m gone. When I come back, they like the stories that I tell. I have a few that are like, ‘Can you get Shaun White to sign this for me?!’” he said.

They’ll watch the U.S. team curl and watch their teacher put his life on hold for a few weeks to again seek Olympic glory.

It’s a sacrifice he wasn’t sure he’d make again. But he loves curling. He knows chemistry. And it was time to join the band for another tour.

“We do what we can, with what we have, to do the best we can,” he said.

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