The first-ever Winter Olympians for the Caribbean island of Dominica will be Gary di Silvestri, a 46-year-old originally from Staten Island, N.Y., and his wife, Angelica Morrone di Silvestri, 48, born and raised in Italy.
It’s not the first time an athlete with U.S. roots has competed for another nation. Nor is it the first time a husband and wife have gone to the Olympics together. And there have been older Olympians, though not too many.
But add them all up?
“It will be historic,” Thomas Dorsett, Dominica Olympic Committee secretary general, said. “Our tourism department will make a field day of that.”
Di Silvestri was a two-time state wrestling champion at Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island. His wrestling career ended on a drive home with his father after a meet his senior year.
A drunk driver collided with them, head on. Di Silvestri wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
“I went through the windshield,” he said.
He spent two days in a coma and two weeks in a hospital but escaped without permanent injury.
Di Silvestri rowed for a national championship team at Georgetown, where he was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist. He didn’t get the scholarship, but he did spend a year in Italy, where he met a Rome University student who would become his wife in 1990.
Upon graduating, he became a Wall Street financial analyst, spent about five years in New York and four years in London before he and his wife returned to the U.S. to run his own company, Deutsche Suisse. In their free time, they skied.
“We had started cross-country skiing maybe 15 years ago, at a very leisurely level, and then as we became more proficient, we loved it,” Morrone di Silvestri said. “We started training and looking for opportunities to race and improve our technique. It’s been a passion for many years now.”
It’s been truly competitive for about seven years.
“No kids, no pets,” Di Silvestri said. “This would not be possible with kids.”
They now live and train in Canmore, Canada, home of the Nordic skiing events at the 1988 Olympics.
They first visited Dominica on holiday six or seven years ago. They have done philanthropic work, mostly in other Caribbean countries, funding children’s hospitals in needy areas. They had a friend at the nation’s Ross University School of Medicine, and it’s become a home when they’re not training.
“They call it the nature island, half tropical rain forest, half Caribbean beach,” Di Silvestri said. “The sand is black, not white. They have 1400m high peaks. It has everything. It has mountains. It has caves. It has hiking, beaches, beautiful crystal clear water, snorkeling, the whole bit. It’s untouched by tourism, relatively speaking.”
Dominica offered them citizenship as a thank you for the charitable work.
“It was kind of given to us,” Di Silvestri said. “It was nothing.”
In November 2012, the International Olympic Committee asked Dominica, among other nations, if it had any athletes it was considering for the Sochi Olympics, Di Silvestri said. There were few options.
The nation had sent no more than six athletes to each of the past five Summer Olympics but never the Winter Games. Dominica is roughly the size of Lexington, Ky., with 70,000 people and doesn’t dip below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
“They knew us, called us and said, ‘Guys, we want you to represent Dominica if you think you can qualify,’” Di Silvestri said. “At first we were hesitant, going from a hobby to a full-time commitment. We said, ‘What the hell. It’s an opportunity. We’ll take it.’”
Di Silvestri began the process by starting the Dominica Ski Federation from scratch, using a constitution template given to them by the International Ski Federation. There were certainly doubts.
“I’m not exactly a spring chicken,” said Morrone di Silvestri, who skied on the Italian Alps as a child. “Can we do it?”
They were officially eligible beginning this season, and they furiously attempted to qualify. They entered lower-level Australia/New Zealand Cup, U.S. Super Tour, Nor-Am Cup and FIS races, finishing from 10th to 78th place.
Event organizers questioned them countless times after looking at athlete start lists with birth years next to names.
“’90, ’91, ’92, ’93, all of a sudden ’67, ’65, is there a typo here?’” he said. “We’re kind of used to it.”
They were intimidated at first, but Di Silvestri qualified in December, and his wife did so last week in her last-chance race.
“One broken pole or a broken ski would have been the end of it,” Di Silvestri said.
They’re still finalizing travel arrangements but are confident they will be in Sochi and march in the Opening Ceremony. Di Silvestri will carry the flag.
They’ll compete on back-to-back days. The women’s 10km cross-country race is Feb .13, followed by the men’s 15km on Feb. 14. They’re going in with experienced mindsets, having already ordered Dominica pins to trade.
“Our coach said that’s going to be a hot commodity,” Di Silvestri said. “So we’re having them made up. They’re going to trade like currency, good as gold.”