The Innovative Toby Dawson
By Jennifer Kim
Google Toby Dawson’s name and you’ll get his life story:
Abandoned as a child on the streets of Pusan, South Korea, then adopted at age 3 by two ski instructors from Vail, Colorado.
Of all the Olympic athletes in the 2006 Torino Winter Games, Dawson, 27, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, probably had the most compelling back story. Variations of the “abandoned and then adopted by two Vail ski instructors” story were repeated so often by the media, that it almost took on a new meaning.
“Yeah, like a pack of dogs (raised me),” Dawson says, jokingly, from his home in Vail during our phone interview. “I really didn’t think (my adoption story) would spin as crazy as it did.” His victory sent South Korea, his birth country, into a media frenzy. One television station went so far as to illegally obtain his adoption records and publicly air them.
Time has passed since he blazed and spun himself to a bronze-medal finish in moguls, a freestyle skiing discipline in which athletes race around moguls (large bumps) and perform two aerial tricks, and when we talked, Dawson was at home relaxing with his mother Deb, girlfriend Leah and pet pig Sir Pinkerton. It is some well-deserved rest after the post-Olympics whirlwind — celebrating in Italy with the ski team, traveling to Los Angeles for interviews and appearances (“Today Show,” Leno, “Shaggy Dog” premiere) and cocktail parties in Vail.
With the ribbon on his bronze medal already fraying from all its publicity handling, Dawson reflects, “I feel good, the Olympics was a pretty wild experience. I had so much fun. Definitely it still is surreal to me to look at the medal, to have been through it all, opening and closing ceremonies and doing everything. I just step back and it still doesn’t really feel like it happened.”
What is real are the millions of snow hours it took to get to Torino. Dawson first put on skis at age 4, raced alpine at age 6, picked up ice hockey and then at age 12, discovered freestyle skiing, where it was love at first bump and jump. For the past eight years, he’s been on the U.S. Ski Team, his full-time job, and has won gold and two bronzes at the World Championships and seven first-place wins in World Cups with 17 top-3 finishes.
“I grew up on skis,” Dawson says. “So anything on skis, I am pretty comfortable. When I was younger, I jumped off the biggest cliffs I could find and go off the biggest jumps that I could find. And if someone would go and get pretty big air, I would have to try to double it.”
This risk-taking attitude was in full form at the Olympics when Dawson chose a line down the mountain that no other skier dared to use. His run included his signature trick, the Cork 720, which is a 720-degree rotation that is off-axis, meaning his body is almost parallel to the ground as he is spinning, and a 720-degree vertical rotation with a mute grab (grabbing skis).
Dawson’s innovative moves are now getting the recognition that many feel he’s deserved all along but wasn’t getting. Although he is the only Asian American on the Olympic Ski Team, Dawson says it is “tough to say” whether his being a minority is a factor as to why he might have been overlooked. “I think a little bit has to do with being a minority, of course, because I’ve been out there working just as hard as anybody else,” Dawson says. “But, I really try hard to not look for those kind of things and just base everything on how well I skied and things like that … but, it definitely crosses your mind at times when you feel you should have scored better than you did because moguls is a judged sport.”
Whether he can convince the judges or not, one thing is for sure: Dawson certainly has a fan following. “On my Web site I have a Q and A and luckily all the questions go into a locked file… You’d drop your jaw if you saw some of the things people write in and talk about…Women, men, a little bit of everything,” he says, laughing.
But perhaps Dawson’s most earnest fans are fellow adoptees and their parents who appreciate that he has shared his experiences. Growing up in Vail as the only Asians in town (along with his brother K.C., 26, also Korean but not biologically related), Dawson understands how tough it is to be different. He learned about his Korean American identity through heritage camps where he took workshops about Korean food, history, culture, martial arts, and where he made friends with kids like himself. These days he returns to camp as a volunteer counselor.
As for the near future, Dawson plans to relax and play golf, his new low-risk passion. Warren Miller, known for his daredevil ski movies, has asked Dawson to be in his next movie, which would be Dawson’s fifth film with him. And what about the 2010 Games? He’s undecided. “I guess this would be my second Olympics cycle, we’ll see how my body feels and see if I can make it through another four. Otherwise, I don’t want to do a two-year run, I want to do all four. So I’m going to have to really figure out if that’s where my desire is.”
One thing is for sure: He says he will resume searching for his birth parents now that the Olympics are over. He’s also looking for a Korean tutor, if anyone can recommend a good one.
5 ON SPORTS WITH TOBY DAWSON
Q: How do you train during the spring and summer months?
Dawson: We go to different countries to ski, and the summer is the only time we can make any advances in muscle gain and things like that. So our workout schedules are very intense at that time as well.
Training is six days a week, typically, one and half hours running outside and another two hours in the gym every day.
Q: What are your favorite places to ski when the weather is warm here?
Dawson: Perisher Blue Ski Resort in New South Wales Australia.
El Colorado Ski Center in Santiago, Chile - a great place, good snowfall, doesn’t get too crowded.
Portillo, Chile - I did a film with Warren Miller there. It is an amazing place to ski in the summer.
Q: What is a great way to condition all year round? For this sport and for general health?
Dawson: Jogging is one of the best ways. It can be a little tough on the body, so split time up between jogging and riding a bike. You really can’t do anything unless you have a good aerobic base. You can’t build quality muscle. You have to have a strong aerobic base before you can start anything else.
Q: What other sports do you enjoy?
Dawson: Surfing and golfing
Q: Where do you like to go to golf and surf? Any gear recommendations?
Dawson: I’ve surfed in Hawaii, Costa Rica, San Diego and Fiji.
I recommend Costa Rica. The dollar goes a long way there! Rip Curl sponsors my surfing gear, so I have Rip Curl boards. For a beginner surfer, longer is better. Until you get really good, you don’t move over to the short boards.
For golf, I’ve been lucky enough to golf at some really great resorts lately. I am also a member of CCR, the Country Club of the Rockies, where I live in Vail. They have wonderful golf facilities and great people.