Amid a numbing blizzard at Bokwang, in the heart of the Pyeongchang ski region, South Korea’s moguls coach has been studying his charges with the warmest pride.
Until a few years ago, Toby Dawson did not speak a word of Korean, and yet this ebullient American has become one of the country’s most celebrated figures.
To understand why, one must rewind to 1982, to a crowded Busan market where Dawson, just three years old and then named Kim Bong-seok, was separated from his mother and had to be sent to an orphanage. What followed was a chain of events, so gloriously improbable, that it would almost require setting to a Leonard Bernstein score.
Having failed to locate his parents, Dawson was adopted by a pair of ski instructors from Vail, Colo., vintage moguls territory where he could practise and perfect the art of skiing on the bumpiest terrain. Come 2006, he won a bronze medal in the discipline at the Turin Winter Games. If the feat was toasted lavishly in the U.S., it grew into a national sensation in South Korea, where the tourism ministry was so smitten with Dawson’s story, it contacted him with the news that it had found several potential genetic leads for his biological parents. Dawson sent off a blood sample and, within a fortnight, a match was found.
“It was a pretty big shock,” Dawson reflects.
Dawson, left, at the Pyeongchang 2018 announcement in 2011 (GETTY IMAGES)
His achievements had such resonance here, though, that a simple, low-key family reunion would not suffice. Instead, a major press conference was announced, where Dawson hugged his father, a former truck driver called Kim Jae-su, amid the burst of a thousand flashbulbs. He would meet his mother privately in Busan, several years later.
“I have been waiting a long time, father,” he declared in Korean, a sentence that he had learned especially for the occasion. Kim responded, tearfully, with a statement of joy about “how wonderfully my son has grown up.”
While heavy on pathos, it was not a moment that Dawson would choose to relive.
“They brought me into a room with a billion cameras,” he says. “They called him out and we were introduced in front of a massive flash. He kept saying ‘I love you’ over and over in Korean, which was extremely awkward for me. The Korean press asked me to say ‘I love you’ back.”
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Dawson’s father tried to explain that it had been too late to look for his missing son. Over subsequent months, he claimed to have scoured numerous orphanages on his search, to no avail. Dawson did not air any recriminations publicly, insisting: “I’m not here to beat him up for what happened.”
Rather, he described how the meeting had helped clarify his sense of allegiance and identity, after a young life spent feeling as …read more