On the face of it, Korean athletes finishing 11th, 27th and 28th in the men’s moguls on Monday February 12 was an unremarkable set of results at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. But it was a punctuation mark on one chapter of a far more remarkable tale, that of Toby Dawson, the host nation’s ski moguls coach.
The 38-year-old’s journey has been told many times over, but loses none of its emotive power in repetition.
Sipping from a cup of coffee in a Pyeongchang cafe, Dawson explains the story he has been told by his biological father; that as a toddler he went missing while out shopping with his mother at a market in the city of Busan, on the southern tip of the Korean peninsular.
Man I am so lucky. To grow up in the United States. What a wonderful place to grow up with such loving parents and to have all these amazing opportunities. To be able to represent the United States as an Olympian.
Found by police but not his parents, he was sent to an orphanage and eventually adopted by Mike and Deborah Dawson, ski instructors from Vail, Colorado.
Deemed too frail to ski when he first lived with them, his first taste of mountain slopes was whizzing down them in his adoptive father’s backpack.
The next season he was given a pair of skis – and was hooked. He would take part in alpine ski races and ice hockey matches all over Colorado at weekends, eventually making it to the United States’ moguls ski squad for the 2006 winter Olympics in Turin, where he captured bronze.
The medal sparked a media frenzy in South Korea, who had never had a medalist in a ski or snowboard discipline. Despite his American passport, Dawson was treated as one the country’s own.
A number of people came forward claiming to be related to him. Previously unconcerned about finding his biological parents, Dawson now had the opportunity to discover his roots.
Soon, a man from the Southern city of Busan said he was Dawson’s biological father. A DNA test verified his claim.
What followed in February 2007 was a very public reunion – a press conference attended by dozens of journalists and TV crews as the homecoming became prime time.
He would meet his mother a few years later, and says her version of events differs from that of his father’s. Dawson insists that wherever the truth lies – and he is not convinced he has yet heard it – there is no point dwelling on the past.
Dawson helped South Korea land the 2018 winter Olympics as part of the bid team, and then accepted a position as head coach to their moguls ski team.
As he rediscovered his roots – he has a taste for foods like cow intestine and when he started speaking Korean there were traces of a Busan accent – he helped turn what was a struggling squad into one that could compete on the grandest of stages. Three South Korean men qualified for the finals – where the best 30 athletes take part – and two South Korean women.
His contract is up in April, and while renewing is an option he may seek opportunities elsewhere; his South Korean wife lives in Germany with their child, and he has also considered going back to university to study finance.
Wherever life may take him in the future, he says he is fortunate that he can look back on the past with a sense of pride, not regret.