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Toby finds his place

SAUZE d'OULX, Italy

The toddler stares at the camera. The background is plain, and the colors are washed away. There is so little emotion in the child's eyes, it somehow leaves you with an overwhelming sense of sadness.

Like a prison mug shot, his name and birth date are written on a piece of paper and pinned to his chest. Except the name is not really his. The birth date is fabricated, too. They were assigned by someone in the orphanage.

Truth is, he'd been abandoned on a street corner near a police station in Pusan, South Korea, and no one knew a thing about him.

This photo was Deborah Dawson's first glimpse of her son.

She immediately fell in love.

At the bottom of the mountain, he crossed the finish line and threw his arms in the air. There were no more bumps to navigate and no more ramps to launch him skyward.

In a few minutes, Toby Dawson would own an Olympic bronze medal in moguls and his years of labor and sacrifice would be validated.

In the bleachers above, Deborah Dawson began to softly cry. Truth be told, her work had been validated years before. This was just an added reward.

"I love him so much. He is just the most awesome kid," Deborah said. "My heart goes out when I see him up there. I'm so proud, I'm so incredibly proud of him. He's not only a terrific athlete, he's a wonderful person.

"And he's come so far in his life."

Dawson, 27, is not the most famous moguls skier in America. That honor belongs to occasional model and future NFL receiver Jeremy Bloom. Nor is Dawson the most accomplished Olympian on the team. Travis Mayer finished seventh Wednesday, but he won a silver medal in the Salt Lake City Games.

But on this day, at this moment, the story belonged to Dawson. The little kid from the black and white photo in South Korea has grown up and become part of the American dream.

It no longer mattered that he would wake up screaming every night during his first year in the States and crawl into bed with his adoptive parents.

It didn't matter that he was painfully shy or that he was self-conscious because he was different from almost all his playmates.

And it certainly didn't matter that the first three years of his life remain a blank slate.

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A month after Toby arrived, Deborah decided she wanted a studio portrait of her little boy. She made an appointment in Denver and drove the two hours from Vail. Toby was in a good mood, and they had an enjoyable ride into the city.

Yet when they got to the studio and Toby saw the cameras, he started shrieking. He did not yet speak English, but Deborah immediately understood something. She apologized to the photographers and ran out with Toby.

"Before leaving Korea, they would take photos of the little children," Deborah said. "I was convinced he must have thought, "They're going to take a picture and put me on another airplane.' I got him out of there so fast."

The plan was to adopt a girl. A newborn girl. Mike and Deborah Dawson had filled out the paperwork and gone through the interviews.

But the adoption agency had a different idea. It brought the Dawsons to Denver and talked to them for two hours before breaking the news.

It had a child, but a boy. And he was at least 3.

The adoption officials offered to show the Dawsons a picture, but Deborah refused. How could she look at a picture and then say no? So they drove away. They went to a bookstore. They visited Deborah's sister. They had lunch.

And then they returned and asked to sign the papers.

They would later go to the airport and pick up the child whose picture they had been staring at for months.

Toby was a quiet child. Almost withdrawn. The Dawsons had tried to learn some Korean words to ease the transition, but Toby didn't seem to even know his native language well. Communication was mostly physical.

"It was mostly through love and holding him," Deborah said. "That was language enough."

The Dawsons wanted to make sure Toby did not lose sight of his background, so they took him to a Korean Heritage Camp for Adoptive Families. They used the name the orphanage assigned him - Soo Chul - as his middle name. They even threw a traditional Korean birthday party for him.

None of it mattered. Toby would always ask if he could skip his Korean lessons. He wanted only to be like the other children.

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Just before bedtime, the first-grader told his mother he wanted to quit his after-school gymnastics class. Why, Deborah wanted to know. Don't ask, Toby said, just please don't make me go. So she thought about it overnight and the next day explained that he had made a commitment, and commitments were important.

If he wanted to quit gymnastics, he was going to have to pay for the class with his allowance money. Later that night, Toby approached his mother and pulled $40 out of his pocket. Here, he said, I'm finished.

"I said, "But, Toby, tell me why. I don't want to take your money.' It broke my heart," Deborah said. "Many years later, I found out he was being teased, and it must have been pretty painful but he didn't want me to go to the class and make a fuss about it. That's Toby; he doesn't like arguing or fighting. He wants everything calm and nice. It almost killed me.

"I can cry thinking about it now."

The Dawsons were ski instructors in Vail, and Toby might as well have been raised on the slopes. Mike put him in a backpack just days after the adoption and took him on his first ride through the snow.

Within a few years, Toby was skiing off courses and through trees and off tiny cliffs. It was the one place he could be himself.

The family would later adopt another little boy from Korea, and K.C. Dawson became Toby's alter ego. Where Toby was shy, K.C. was outgoing. Where Toby was not interested in his background, K.C. was eager to learn.

"He was left on the street, so there wasn't much information. With me, there was a lot of paperwork," K.C. said. "I always felt a little guilty being so interested because there just wasn't as much hope for him. It's always been a touchy subject, but look at him now. He's done pretty well for himself."

Once Toby became a contender on the World Cup circuit, the Korean press began taking an interest in him. They ran his childhood pictures on the Internet and in newspapers to search for his family.

Deborah had always encouraged him to search for his biological parents, but Toby had resisted. Now the matter was out of his hands.

"He's very popular in Asia," said Toby's girlfriend, Leah Halmi. "A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork claiming to be his parents, but none of them have been willing to take a DNA test."

Toby still seems reluctant to take up the search, but he said Wednesday he is willing to consider it.

There is a good reason for his ambivalence. After all these years, after all this time, he seems now to understand his place in the world.

He is Mike and Deborah's child.

And an Olympic medalist.

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