Chris Plys has been called a gold medalist more times than he can count over the last three years. But he’s never won an Olympic medal of any color.
The misnomer stems from a bike ride along Lake Superior in spring 2018.
Plys, then a 30-year-old who spent two-thirds of his life as a curler, received the most coveted phone call in recent American curling history while out cycling. It came from Matt Hamilton, one of the four members of the U.S. Olympic team that stormed to surprise gold two months earlier in PyeongChang.
The conversation “wasn’t super glamorous or anything,” Plys said, but he certainly won’t forget it.
Hamilton asked if Plys was interested in filling the team’s vacant roster spot, left by Tyler George‘s soon-to-be-announced retirement to become an ambassador for the sport.
“You don’t get an opportunity to join a defending Olympic champion team very often,” Plys said this week, deadpan.
His decision made, it was time for Plys to make one of his hardest phone calls as a curler: dialing up his team’s skip to say goodbye. The previous November, Plys was on a team that beat Shuster in the opening game of a best-of-three series in the Olympic Trials finals.
But Shuster won the next two to nab his fourth Olympic berth. Three months later in South Korea, he led an epic Olympic comeback, winning five consecutive elimination games to grab gold.
Team Shuster is back in the Olympic Trials finals in Omaha, starting Friday night (broadcast schedule here). Shuster, Hamilton and John Landsteiner are trying to become the first men to earn back-to-back Olympic curling gold medals.
Then there’s the fourth and final member of the team. Plys is shaggy and tattooed up and down his arms and legs and on his chest. He’s often introduced as part of a gold-medal team. But at autograph sessions with the rest of the guys, he passes along 2018 Olympic items rather than signing them. This week, he’s just trying to make his first Olympics outright (which is a key word).
“This would be kind of full circle coming back for me,” he said.
Plys has been to an Olympics. He went to the 2010 Vancouver Games as an earringed alternate, picked up by Shuster’s rink after going 3-6 skipping his own squad at trials a year earlier.
He got the Olympian treatment as part of the traveling roster. A Pussycat Dolls member asked him out on E!, and Stephen Colbert called him “the cute one” on the team on Comedy Central.
Plys, then 22, thought he would spend those two weeks at the Olympics in the background. Alternates’ primary responsibility is “matching rocks,” throwing competition stones after the completion of play to gauge their variance in preparation for their teammates’ next game.
But Shuster struggled. Plys was called up to the gameday foursome, replacing Shuster as the skip in an unprecedented shuffle. Plys is glad to have competed — the youngest American man to curl in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org — but would have rather stayed on the bench if it meant the team was playing well.
Plys failed to make the Olympics in 2014 and 2018. After Shuster won in PyeongChang, he figured that team would stick together, creating a formidable roadblock for anybody else to represent Team USA in the near future.
He was surprised to learn that George, then 35 and oldest on the team, was stepping away two months after the Winter Games.
“I had thoughts about it as far back as 2016,” said George, a liquor store owner who was gifted new curling shoes by The New York Times at the Olympics to replace his eight-year-old Skechers. “I’ve just been playing for so long, and you kind of get burned out, and there’s other things you want to do in life. And you know what kind of effort it takes to play at that level.
“I just didn’t think I could put that in again.”
Plys hadn’t yet heard who would replace George but was reluctant to proactively campaign to Hamilton, a teammate on a 2008 World junior champion team who has stayed at Plys’ house. Or Shuster, a fellow Duluthian and teammate for a 2007 World University Games title run.
Turns out he didn’t need to make a case. Shuster said this week that Plys was the first and only person they asked to replace George, though others were considered. George, who would have been shocked if it was anybody else, noted that Plys was already on the second-best team in the country and shared a hometown with Shuster and Landsteiner.
“It was a natural fit,” Shuster said.
Plys, among many tattoos over the last decade, got the words “I Choose Joy” inked on a forearm. His dad, Patrick, wrote those words on a dry erase board when he couldn’t speak following a stroke near the end of a 17-year brain cancer battle that lasted until 2012.
Before that, Patrick was the face-painted man banging on a cowbell at the 2010 Olympic curling venue. Then in 2011, seven months before his death, Patrick fulfilled a lifelong dream by tandem biking 1,300 miles around Lake Superior, the same lake that Plys was cycling alongside when he received that call from Hamilton. (Two months before the call, Hamilton shouted out Plys in his intro at the Olympic final.)
Plys’ family and curling club members later founded Project Joy, raising money toward helping children who need food. Patrick grew up poor and always wanted his kids to know how lucky they were to have steady meals.
“He’s very laid back,” George said of Chris, who in 2011 started running his father’s food brokerage company, Plys Superior Consulting, and has curled on Lake Superior. “He’ll slam a broom every once in a while, but he’s not a finger pointer.”
Plys’ talent shone last month, when he and Vicky Persinger won the Olympic Trials in mixed doubles, which debuted in PyeongChang.
But Plys’ spot in Beijing isn’t yet secure. He and Persinger must qualify at an international event in December. They should be able to, and if the favored Shuster team prevails in Omaha this week, Plys will be one of the busiest athletes at the Games.
Team Shuster, bonded over several Minnesota ice fishing trips, placed fifth at worlds in 2019 and 2021. At the latter, Plys tested positive for COVID going into the playoff rounds. It was deemed a false positive after further testing, but it was a distraction and the Americans lost their next game.
At this week’s Olympic Trials, they steamrolled through the first eight games undefeated to clinch a spot in the finals with two round-robin games to spare.
The curling community is so interwoven that Plys also played with George, back in the Sochi Olympic cycle. George boasts more about being there when a pre-teen Plys threw his first rocks in a junior program in Duluth.
“I told him his second day of practice … that years down the road, when he wins all the championships that he’s going to win, he has to give me all the credit,” George joked. “It all comes full circle.”
NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.
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