[SPORTS] Toby Dawson - Korean american Freestyler Goes for Olympic Gold
- The Ice Man Cometh
Freestyle skier Toby Dawson is using dazzling acrobatics and extreme
attitude to fight for an Olympic medal
VAIL, COLO. Somebody throw Toby Dawson a No Fear T-shirt.
As a member of the United States Freestyle Ski Team, he spends his
days cheating death by flinging his body into the air and performing
360s and rotisserie-style spins 30 feet above ground.
But the 25-year-old is constantly challenging himself and pushing
coaches to help him go bigger. Can he get more air? A little more
rotation? Is it possible to defy velocity, gravity and wind speed
all in one moment?
In Toby's head, there is no room for second thoughts, and all of his
senses tell him that he just might be able to bend physics to his
favor. Apprehension and limitations exist in a far-off world that
he's never heard of, and it's hard for him to admit he is only
human, especially after what didn't happen in Salt Lake City two
Toby Dawson's acrobatics, like this off-axis 720, has attracted the
attention of filmmaker Warren Miller.
It is this need for Olympic redemption that keeps his intensity high
and his focus impenetrable.
Toby is the answer to "What's cooler than being cool?"
He is ice-cold.
"I was right on the cusp," recalls Toby of the last winter
Olympics. "I was basically the first alternate on that Olympic team."
In January 2002, Toby had one last chance to qualify for a spot on
the U.S. Olympic team. He needed to place in the top three, but he
"It just crushes you," he says. "I felt that I deserved, or could be
on that team and could do well at the Olympics. But at the same
time, I'm so stubborn it gave me that much more motivation to go out
and work harder and train more and prove myself next time."
"What drives me the most crazy while competing is watching these
people ski these conservative runs and doing well. For me, I want to
put down a run that's breathtaking to the limit every single time,
and I'd rather go all out and blow up than just put a run down that
I know I can do every single time. I just want to step it up a level
every time I get on snow and compete."
Currently ranked eighth in the world, Toby competes in the moguls
competition of freestyle, which means he must ski through a field of
snow mounds, make a jump a third of the way down, ski through more
moguls, hit another jump and then race to the finish line. Judges
then score him on speed and technical execution of his turns and
Traveling around the world with his team throughout the year, he has
been preparing for the 2006 Olympics, which will take place in
Torino, Italy. He has been down this road before, but this time he
is spending twice as much time in the weight room, as well as in the
air up there.
"A lot of what I'm trying to do now is trying to innovate as much as
I can and leave my mark within the sport. Recently, my signature
move was a 360-degree rotation off a jump, doing a daffy iron cross.
"A daffy is like where you kick your right leg in front and then
you kick your left leg back so it's like a flip, almost, and then
when you get 180, you twist your toes in and bend your knees up and
you make a cross with your skis. Last season, I was known for the
off-axis 720, which is basically a 720-degree rotation with the body
lying parallel to the ground. Now I'm working on a variation of
It might sound like such a move will only result in mangled limbs,
but for Toby, pushing the status quo of freestyle skiing with such
difficult tricks is what the sport is all about.
"What drives me the most crazy while competing is watching these
people ski these conservative runs and doing well," he says. "For
me, I want to put down a run that's breathtaking to the limit every
single time, and I'd rather go all out and blow up than just put a
run down that I know I can do every single time. I just want to step
it up a level every time I get on snow and compete."
Toby only owns up to one bad accident as a result of hurtling
himself through the air. Three years ago, he over jumped his landing
and his elbow jammed into his side, rupturing his kidney. Even
though he was in intensive care for five days and then in rehab for
five months, the mishap didn't alter his intensity and dedication to
his sport. Toby's technical coach, Liz McIntyre, is an everyday
witness to this.
"He's always wondering, you know, `How much bigger can I go? How
much more room do I have? Can I jump bigger? Can I jump better?'"
says Liz. "It's really nice. Everyone else, you're trying to
tell, `You know, I think you can go a little bit bigger,' and he's
According to Liz, Toby has no real weakness, except for being too
hard on himself. He is his own best coach and has established
himself as a team member who sets the bar for others, then raises it
"People are looking to see what he's doing," says Liz. "`How's Toby
training? Which line is Toby skiing? Where's Toby landing the air?
How's he turning through that section?' People definitely look at
him as a role model."
Liz, who has competed in three Olympics and earned a silver medal at
the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, has no doubt that Toby
possesses the right combination of talent and focus to make an
appearance at Torino.
"He's got a great sense in the air for mogul skiing," she says. "Not
only do you have to ski the moguls, but you take two jumps, and
that's a big part of mogul skiing now. It makes and breaks your run,
depending on how your airs are. And he's someone who's super-
innovative in the air and just has great air sense. He's very
comfortable with it, and he seems to be fearless."
Leave it to your mother to play you out. Turns out stone-cold Toby
Dawson is also a bit bashful and somewhat of an introvert.
"He was always very close to me, and he stayed in my arms forever,"
recalls Deborah Dawson of Toby as a toddler. "People in town laugh
now. Sometimes they'll see me and they'll say, `Well, where is he?'
Because he was like an extra appendage. He never left my side for a
"He's always been very quiet, and sometimes you don't know what he's
thinking because he's not real expressive most of the time. I
remember telling him, `Toby, you don't need to talk to people, you
just need to say hello and look them in the eye. That's all you need
to do, and then you're off the hook.' Because it was so hard for him
to talk to people and then to converse."
While he seemed to keep his emotions in check, Toby's physical
instincts often had him performing daring acts, even as a pre-
"I walked down to the park one morning where the kids were playing,"
says Deborah. "We had this huge wooden swing set, and he had
shinnied up that somehow, and he was walking it like a balance beam.
I couldn't say anything because I didn't want him to lose his
balance. I was scared to death. But that's how he was. He never
stopped. My mother used to say, `Doesn't he ever just walk
somewhere?' If he saw something, he'd jump up on it. He was always
just doing stunt kinds of things."
Toby was adopted at the age of 3 by Deborah and Mike Dawson, two ski
instructors from Vail. While the Dawsons knew nothing about Toby's
biological parents, they recognized that their son had athletic
ability that was waiting to be reaped.
"At first, when he came, he couldn't even walk all the way into
town," says Deborah. "He couldn't run. He hadn't had much physical
stimulation. It took him a long time to gain his strength. [But]
once he started, I mean, no matter what we put him on ice skates,
we put him on skis he took to it right away and he just was so
determined. You could see a talent right away. He just had a drive
Deborah remembers her first ski lesson with a 4-year-old Toby, who
seemed to possess the genetics of his adoptive parents.
"Never once did he cry, never once did he whine. He didn't want to
go in. I had to force him to go in and eat some lunch. He loved it,
and he just was a natural. We stayed out the entire day, and at the
very end of the day, I was like, `You know Toby, we have to go home
now because the lifts are closing!'"
K.C., the Dawson's second adoptive son, arrived from Seoul in 1983,
and he and Toby had a childhood filled with ski lessons and hockey
games. Although younger in age, K.C. was more socially comfortable
and often served as Toby's spokesperson.
It was when Deborah and K.C. were out of town at a hockey tournament
that Toby stumbled onto his current pastime. Wary of Toby's wild
skiing and not wanting her 13-year-old to ski alone, Deborah had
enrolled Toby in a freestyle skiing clinic that weekend.
"I walked down to the park one morning where the kids were playing.
We had this huge wooden swing set, and he had shinnied up that
somehow, and he was walking it like a balance beam. I couldn't say
anything because I didn't want him to lose his balance. I was scared
to death. But that's how he was. He never stopped. My mother used to
say, 'Doesn't he ever just walk somewhere?' If he saw something,
he'd jump up on it. He was always just doing stunt kinds of things."
Not only did he end up loving his two days of doing tricks on the
trampoline and skiing moguls, but the experience opened him up
enough to do something rare: talk.
"I was in a hotel in Denver, and he called me," says
Deborah. "Usually, it was just, `Hi, Mom. Yeah. Good. Bye.' [But] he
never stopped talking. I think he talked for an hour. He went on and
on and on and on about what fun he had and how great this program
was. And then a freestyle team was started in town after that
weekend, and he quit hockey and moved over to freestyle."
Seeing her son competing now for the United States, Deborah couldn't
be more excited.
"I wish someday that he could find his parents because there is a
talent there, and they should be so proud," she says. "I wish that
somehow they could know what he's become and be able to see him."
Supportive of Toby's decision to postpone college to pursue an
Olympic medal, Deborah is elated with how the sport has helped groom
"It has given him so much," she says. "It has taught him to be open
and talkative, and he does interviews, and he's meeting new people
all the time. He's so poised now, and he's gracious. And it's so fun
to hear him speak with people because he's very well-spoken. It has
absolutely changed his life.
"I often wonder what would have happened if he had been adopted into
a family that went to the library on Saturdays," she says. "I think
he must have had this yearning to break out."
He just may be the only Asian American in competitive skiing, which
means Toby is representing people that, while growing up, he had no
real connection to. Vail was an all-white community when he was
first adopted, and while his parents sent him and his brother to
Korean heritage camps, he only wanted to concentrate on fitting in
with his peers. Especially when he was faced with racial epithets
and ignorant comments.
"I really viewed myself as kind of this all-American kid. I guess
the blinders were on when I looked in the mirror. I didn't want to
think that I was Korean, and I didn't want anyone to tell me that I
was different than my blue-eyed, blonde-haired buddy."
It was his talent in sports that he admits helped him find a niche
where he felt powerful and accepted.
But now Toby says that the older he gets, the more comfortable he is
in his skin. He recognizes that others may be looking to him to
represent, and he has even taken the time to speak at a couple
Korean heritage camps.
This month, Toby looks forward to attending an invitational skiing
event in Korea, where his name has become well-known among skiers.
"For it to come full circle and have skiing bring me back to Korea
is pretty exciting for me," he says.
And like many things Korean, Toby is big in Japan. He actually has a
ski camp set up in his name just outside of Nagano at which he
teaches at once a year, as well as a fan club.
"I remember a couple years ago, I was competing in Japan, and there
were four guys. And they each had a white T-shirt on over their
jackets; one had the letter T, one had the letter O, one had the
letter B and one had the letter Y. They kind of got mixed up in the
order, so they ended up spelling T-B-O-Y instead of T-O-B-Y," he
Also teaching at camps in Canada and New Zealand, Toby is able to
make enough money "to float" for now, and he is a fully funded
member on the ski team. He also relies on endorsement money,
although with an Asian face, he might not be the moneymaker ski
sponsors want to go after.
"I definitely have asked myself that sometimes," he says. "That is
why I try to push the envelope, you know, push the sport as much as
I can. To be someone that's a little bit more different, to be
someone that's doing the most difficult tricks. That's where I can
kind of gain ground on someone else."
Acclaimed filmmaker Warren Miller got word of Toby's antics and
asked the brazen freestyler to appear in four of his famous ski
documentaries, an honor for any skier.
Toby may showboat in the air and be known as a bad-ass on metal, but
get him on the podium after a competition and you'll see past his
pierced ears and tongue. You'll see the kid his mother was talking
"I get kind of embarrassed standing up in front of everybody. I feel
way more comfortable on the snow. I can show off and do all that
stuff while I'm skiing, but then, yeah, put me in shoes and put me
in front of a hundred people, and I get sheepish and shy and quiet."
By the time 2006 rolls around, Toby will have been training on the
national team for nearly eight years. If he makes the Olympic team,
it will mean that he has finally reached the end of his marathon
run. And then, the real race will begin.
"That's like the biggest dream I can have, you know? To represent
the country," says Toby. "It's really hard, and you can't look too
far into the future. Right now, I say my goal is to make the Olympic
team, but yeah, deep down in my heart, I want to go there to get a
medal. Gold, silver and bronze any medal will be good enough, and
I'll be very excited with any of those, but I'm in pursuit of a gold
For now, Toby says that Torino will be his last competition. But,
after having one goal for so long, how do you switch to a different
one? And what keeps you from trying for the next Olympics after that
"Those are the questions I still ask myself," admits Toby. "When do
you call it enough? In competitions, I'm so demanding on myself that
I realize I might want to keep skiing. But at the same time, I also
want to get on with a regular life, a career and family. To have a
so-called normal life is something that I look forward to a lot.
Finishing up school, just being grounded in one area would be nice."
Today, Toby enjoys a rare moment between competitions when he is not
traveling, resting instead at his home in Vail.
He is a little wistful as he contemplates his future, saying that
after the Olympics, he may never put skis on again.
"I have no idea what direction my life will take after I'm done
skiing, but you know, eventually I'll get married and have kids or
whatnot," he says. "I could definitely see myself taking them to a
beach and teaching them how to surf or something like that, rather
than taking them to the cold snow. I guess I'm just tired of being
cold and shivering my whole life. I need to be able to soak up a
little bit of sun."
Right now, Toby isn't wearing ski gear and is content thinking about
life beyond the slopes. But in 11 days, when he's suited up at the
starting gate at the freestyle cup in Lake Placid, New York, he'll
be listening to hip-hop or classical music (depending on his mood)
to get into the zone. He'll forget he ever said words like "beach"
or "surf." He'll envision five familiar interlocking rings, and that
primal need to throw his soul into the air will surface.
And ice will once again fill his veins.