GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Tyler George keeps them in his carry-on bag when he travels. He has a hard time letting them out of his sight. They are his most important piece of equipment, and for an American curler with dreams of Olympic gold, they are virtually priceless.
“Even though they look like they were in a Dumpster fire,” he said.
They are, of course, his shoes — a pair of 8-year-old Skechers that he has worn into oblivion at curling tournaments all over the world. Now, they are with him here for the 2018 Winter Olympics in all their tattered glory. George loves them, needs them, cherishes them.
His teammates tolerate them.
“They’re a mess,” Joe Polo said.
“Disgusting,” Matt Hamilton said.
“Oh, God,” John Shuster said.
Olympians who compete on snow and ice rely on footwear that is often ridiculously expensive. Downhill skiers, for example, are supplied with a dozen or more pairs of special boots that, because of high-tech customizations, would cost thousands of dollars — if they were actually available to retail customers. Kimani Griffin, an American speedskater, wears handmade boots that go for about $2,000 a pair, and he outfits them with Viking blades that run between $700 and $1,000.
“So you’re looking at close to three grand for the whole setup,” he said.
And then there is George, 35, who went to the mall.
About eight years ago, George went shoe shopping in Duluth, Minn., where he lives and trains. He was looking for a casual pair to wear around town. He found a sporty pair of Skechers called Urban Tracks. They were white with stripes on the side. He liked them. He liked them so much, in fact, that he decided to slap Teflon plates onto the soles and curl in them.
Most elite curlers compete in shoes that are manufactured by sport-specific brands like Goldline Curling and Balance Plus. Curling shoes look like normal shoes — good, sensible shoes — except for the soles, which are equipped with Teflon sliders that allow the curlers to glide across the ice.
But some players turn running or training sneakers into curling shoes by using adhesive or Velcro to attach Teflon to the soles. Here at the Olympics, Hamilton is wearing Nike Metcons, a model favored by the CrossFit crowd. Hamilton said he wanted a shoe that was breathable — “I run hot,” he said — and fashionable, too.
“I just thought that curling shoes were boring,” he said. “They’re like old-man wingtips.”
George, a three-time national champion, values comfort and flexibility when he throws the curling rock. He uses his right foot to push off the hack, which is like a starting block, and then drags that foot behind him as he lunges with his left leg and slides down the sheet.
His movements need to be precise, he said. He depends on his shoes — and the longer he wears them, the better.
“It’s like a baseball glove,” George said. “The ball has to feel right when it hits the webbing. Curling shoes — same thing. You have to be able to point your knee out the right way, and put the right amount of your foot on the ice.”
But after so many matches and so many throws and so much water damage, the forefoot of his right shoe now has the consistency of a pasta strainer. There are giant rips on both sides. He described them as ventilated. In his defense, he said, his shoes are not the most beat-up pair that he has seen in competition. No, those belonged to a Canadian curler named Blake MacDonald at the world championships in 2010. (MacDonald’s team won.)
“His shoes made mine look like they’re brand new,” George said. “Those things were horrendous. But if you make enough shots, everyone quiets up pretty quick.”
George had planned to get his Skechers patched up at a shoe shop before he left for the Olympics. But he was worried that he would need to leave them for two or three days, and he did not want to sacrifice practice time, he said. So here in Gangneung, George made a couple of minor repairs using tape — “I’ve blown a couple tires on these things,” he said — and jazzed up his look with fancy socks featuring superheroes. Given the state of his shoes, he was willing to make the investment.
“I knew I had to step up my sock game for the Olympics,” he said.
Replacing old shoes can be a logistical challenge for an Olympic curler. The on-ice season often runs from August through April. For players like George and Shuster, who both live in Minnesota, their access to curling sheets in the summer is limited. And rather than spend August breaking in new shoes once they return to the ice, they prefer to focus on preparing for the coming season. It can take weeks for curlers to adjust to new shoes.
“Honestly,” Shuster said, “I have a pair of shoes I’ve been thinking about trying to break in for three years and just haven’t gotten a chance.”
It should be noted that George has tried to replace his Skechers on at least two occasions in recent years. But one new pair that he tried felt too stiff, hindering his form when he delivered the rock. Another pair caused patellar tendinitis in his right knee. Entering an Olympic year, he did not want to mess around with potential injuries.
The shoes he is wearing replaced a pair of curling-specific shoes that he had worn for nearly a decade when he was climbing the ranks.
“They were beat up to all hell, too,” he said.