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(Yonhap Feature) With Olympic medalist and gov't support, skiing team resets goal
By John Duerden
Contributing writer
BUCHEON, South Korea, Nov. 15 (Yonhap) -- Toby Dawson is standing in the snow wearing shorts. "You should feel like you are lying on a table and then let your legs give you the rotation," he shouts.

   At Woongjin Play City in Bucheon, just outside of Seoul, the 33-year-old 2006 Winter Olympics medalist is putting South Korea's freestyle skiing team through their paces. One by one, the five athletes set off down the slope, launch off a ramp and spin and somersault through the air before landing on a giant air bag.

   It is all to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held in PyeongChang, an eastern South Korean city that won the right to host the event on its third try. Korea is strong in ice events such as figure skating and shorttrack, but when it comes to snow, it has some ground to make up. With the government now backing the sport, however, skiing may never get a better opportunity here.

Toby Dawson, coach of South Korean skiing team. He is seen here arriving at Incheon International Airport on Feb. 5, 2011. (Yonhap file photo)

"The athletes' level was pretty low. They have been trying hard but it has all been out of their own pocket," Dawson, the bronze metalist in freestyle mguls, said. "But with sponsorship and government support, they can have full-time coaching and consistent coaching for the first time in their life. The whole program has completely changed and they all understand that this is a great opportunity for them."

   Dawson admits that skiing and snowboard disciplines are not strong in Korea. "I thought that I can help spark interest and get that going to a higher level of competition for all the Korean athletes going into the 2018 Olympics," he said. "And right now, the government is backing us so it's such a great time for all these different sports set up."

   Dawson was born in Korea but grew up in the United States as an adoptee. He was part of the PyeongChang bid team and as soon as the Gangwon Province city was awarded the 2018 Winter Games in July 2011 in Durban, South Africa, he was asked to become coach of the freestyle skiing team.

   "I had never thought about coaching before. I had helped some female athletes in the United States ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics but I never thought it would be a full-time job," he said. "I thought about it and thought that it would be amazing to give something back to my home country and pass along some of the information and experience I had gained through the years of international competition."

   Dawson approaches the task of coaching the hard-working athletes with enthusiasm. After the stint in Bucheon -- the only facility in Korea with an airbag and one that must be shared with the general public -- the team headed to Japan and Australia for more training.

   Dawson said the only difference between the Koreans and the leaders in the sport, Canada and America, is one of training. "They just haven't trained as much, they just need to be pushed in the right direction, they have never had that and that is where I hope to fill a gap."

   The government funding enables the freestyle skiers to do something never done before -- be paid to train full-time and train and compete overseas. If Korea hopes to ever be one of the best in the world at the sport, it seems to be a necessary step.

   Choi Jae-hwan is 18 and twists and turns in the air under the watchful eyes of Dawson. After two hours of practice, the athletes and coach retire to watch their form on video and iron out problems that are virtually invisible to the untrained eye but are keenly discussed by the coach and his students.

   "It is great to be doing this full-time," said Choi. "I like this more than studying at school. I have a goal that I want to achieve." Like all athletes, that goal is to be standing on a podium at an Olympic Games.

   "I want the gold medal in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang," he said. "The year 2018 will be special. I will be 25 then and that is the peak age for this sport. We will be at home and will know the facilities so well and there are many advantages for us."

South Korean skiing team and staff pose for photo with their coach, Toby Dawson (right) during a break from training early fall.

Choi also hopes to be a challenger at the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi, which is recognized by all concerned as a major indicator of how the athletes are progressing along the road to PyeongChang.

   "Year 2014 is a huge stepping stone," Dawson said. "It gives all the athletes a chance to compete. A couple of them have skied in the Olympics before but by the time Sochi comes around, they have a chance of finishing in the top 10. There is a possibility of a medal in 2014 but in 2018, we have the time to really create something."

   Seo Jung-hwa was one of those in action in Vancouver in 2010 but she had to make her own way to Canada. Now the 21-year-old is enjoying the new levels of support on offer as 2018 slowly appears on the distant horizon.

   "When I was young, I skated with my family," she said. "Then I saw slalom on TV and tried that a little and I moved towards freestyle. When I am approaching the ramp, I am just thinking of my training and the take-off and what I need to do.

   "I am looking forward very much to 2018. It will be wonderful to have the Winter Olympics in my homeland. Everyone will be so excited and it will give the sport and us a real boost. My family and friends are very supportive of me. They know this is my dream and I am working hard."