Toby Dawson: ‘Turning casual skiers into world-class athletes is biggest challenge’
U.S. ski champion Toby Dawson, an Olympic bronze medalist at the 2006 Turin Olympics, says the hardest part of training Korea’s freestyle ski team for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang is turning amateur skiers into top-tier competitors.
With three years to go until the Olympic torch reaches Korea, there’s still a lot of work to be done, he says.
“Some of the skiers I have are now becoming athletes,” he told Groove Korea in an interview in Seoul. “They were kind of like weekend skiers, what we would call weekend warriors” — those who loved to hit the slopes but weren’t training or going to the gym.
“So to change these guys into world-class athletes has been the biggest challenge.”
Dawson is currently working with three skiers with the Korean Ski Association and four who are on the pro ski team launched by Grand Korea Leisure, the company that operates the Seven Luck Casino.
While the athletes already have some competition experience — one of his skiers, Seo Jung-hwa, competed in the 2010 Vancouver Games — Dawson says that it takes more than a place at the starting gate to become competitive in their field.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics were a disappointment for Korea’s athletes, as they finished 13th in the medal table, missing their top-10 target. With just eight medals earned, three of them gold, it was Korea’s lightest medal haul since Salt Lake City in 2002.
There was, however, a glimmer of hope: Choi Jae-woo became the first Korean skier to achieve a top-12 placing in mogul skiing — a new Korean record for the sport.
Dawson, a Korean-born adoptee to the U.S. who lobbied hard in 2011 for the PyeongChang bid to host the Winter Olympics, was appointed head coach of the freestyle ski team in April 2012.
His next goal is to see Korean skiers on the medals podium. “The whole reason I came to Korea is to search for a medal,” he says.
Preparing for the PyeongChang Games is a huge life change for his skiers, with an array of technical elements for them to learn as they maintain a schedule of daily strength and endurance conditioning. To help with the adjustment, Dawson is using his connections in the field to arrange for practices alongside the U.S., Swedish and German national teams.
Off-season training takes place in Honolulu’s Trampoline Camp, and the team also trains in water ramp jumping at Hakuba 47 Resort in Japan and on snow at Perisher Resort in Australia, Zermatt Resort in Switzerland and Ruka Resort in Finland.
Back in Korea, Dawson takes his skiers to Phoenix Park in Gangwon Province — which will host the Games’ freestyle snowboarding events — to get used to the area, the slopes and the gradients.
“The better we get to know it as a team and me as a coach, I think the better situation we’ll be in when we come to the 2018 Olympics,” he says. The trainees who are cut out for PyeongChang, he says, are now starting to show some real progress.
Beyond the Games, Dawson wants to use his background, technical knowledge and network of ski coaches — including his former competitors — to produce a strong Korean roster for freestyle skiing and establish grassroots junior programs in Korea to help the sport grow.
“The U.S. Ski Team does a great job in educating and keeping regional teams up to date through seminars (and) online tutorials,” says Dawson, adding that prominent ski resorts, such as Vail, Aspen and Summit County in Colorado, have junior, development and competition programs that allow young skiers to develop and get to train and watch older athletes compete.
But “these opportunities were not presented (in Korea).”
Introducing these programs, Dawson says, “will make the sport even better, because it makes the dynamic (of) one country more competitive in a sport that not a lot of other countries are competitive in.”
Looking ahead to the 2018 Games, Dawson says that for his skiers, the questions of whether each individual athlete is focused and ready to compete have become integral to the team’s training. “If an athlete is thinking about the process and being prepared,” he explains, “he’s going to have a higher chance (of reaching the podium).”