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Just hours before a team of Special Olympics athletes from Denmark arrived in Solvang, Esther Jacobsen Bates received a surprise she never expected.

While scrolling through emails before lunch on Wednesday, she came across one from a relative in Denmark.

In what Bates describes as “an interesting aside,” the email revealed that she has a cousin she never met -- and that she would be in Solvang that day before competing in the Special Olympics World Games.

“I’m going to meet a cousin I never knew I had,” Bates said Wednesday afternoon. “I had no idea she would be here.”

Bates runs the Elverhoj Museum, celebrating the Danish culture and history of Solvang. She didn’t know that day that she would be learning more about her own Danish roots.

“I heard it unfold on the phone,” said Nina Hager, who works with Bates at the museum. “She scrolled through the athlete list after and found the name.”

Bates’ cousin, Elsebeth Vestergaard Pedersen, is a Special Olympic handball athlete who celebrated her 50th birthday Thursday.

“People forget there are very real ties between Denmark and Solvang -- it’s not just the way it looks here,” Bates said, pointing at the town’s iconic old-world architecture.

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During a welcoming ceremony for the athletes Wednesday, Bates paced throughout town searching for her long-lost relative among crowds of Danish athletes, unsure of what she looked like. Then she was pointed out at a park table.

During a barbeque at Solvang Park, Pedersen was munching on a hamburger, unaware she had any connection to anything in Solvang where the Danish Special Olympics team was being hosted.  

“That little girl is my wife’s cousin’s daughter from Denmark,” said Bates’ father, Knud Jacobsen, pointing at Pedersen.

Bates wrapped her arm around Pedersen’s shoulder.

“I’m your cousin,” she told her in Danish. 

Harold Pierce covers the Santa Ynez Valley as a reporter for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce