Bend coach defends Dominican Olympic skiers

J.D. Downing upset by reports that couple “scammed” their way into the Games

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Feb 26, 2014 at 12:01AM

Bend’s J.D. Downing is defending the two nordic skiers he coached in Sochi, Russia, as the first Winter Olympic team ever fielded by the Caribbean island country of Dominica.

Husband-and-wife duo Gary di Silvestri, 47, and Angelica Morrone di Silvestri, 48, have come under fire this week amid reports that they “scammed” their way into the Olympics.

A story on the website Deadspin suggests that they bought their Dominican citizenship and details a past of alleged tax dodging, bribery, and false claims about athletic feats.

A longtime Bend resident and director of the elite XC Oregon nordic ski team, Downing, 47, said he has known the di Silvestris for eight years. He questioned the validity of the reports.

“I don’t know everything about their lives, but I don’t know everything about all the athletes I’ve worked with,” Downing said Tuesday. “But I do know when it comes to their participation in the Olympics, their qualification, what actually happened at the Olympics, everything was done by the book, everything was done legitimately. And anybody who says otherwise is fabricating.”

Gary di Silvestri is from Staten Island, N.Y., and Angelica Morrone di Silvestri is a native of Italy. According to foxsports.com, he was an investment fund manager, she was an auto company executive, and they currently live in a château in Montana.

According to reports, the di Silvestris had become Dominican citizens by giving generously to humanitarian efforts in the country — though they reportedly had been vague about just what those efforts were when questioned by reporters at the Olympics.

Dominica’s government website notes that married couples can become citizens by giving a nonrefundable investment of $175,000 to the country.

“There was charitable work done years ago, and the island thanked them for that charitable work by giving them citizenship,” Downing said. “The island approached the di Silvestris about trying to qualify for the Olympics.”

The Dominica Olympic Committee also defended the di Silvestris’ citizenship and participation in the Olympics.

“Gary never came to us and said, ‘Look, I’m spending this; I’m doing this and doing that, so I want be on board to go to the Olympic Games,’” DOC president Felix Wilson told The New York Times. “That was not the approach. No way.”

Downing said the di Silvestris have traveled to Bend to train with him about half a dozen times, and he worked closely with them in their efforts to make the Olympics. He insists the di Silvestris qualified legitimately for the Sochi Games, though he admits that Dominica’s Olympic standards were not as high as those of other countries.

“I have a paper trail on my hard drive of every single qualification race and every single point and every single form that was properly filled out,” Downing said. “Every single rule was followed, to the letter. When anybody says, ‘Oh, they bought their way into the Olympics,’ well, that’s functionally impossible. You can’t do it.

“If somebody wants to take issue with a particular nation having standards that are different than other nations, then you have to take issue with the nation. For example, New Zealand did not have any cross-country skiers (in Sochi) because they set the standard for what a cross-country skier would have to do quite a bit higher (than Dominica).”

In Sochi, Morrone di Silvestri crashed into an exposed metal bar in a training accident the day after the opening ceremonies and suffered multiple fractures of her head and nose, according to Downing. She underwent four surgeries over a period of 10 days and spent all but four days of the Games in a hospital bed, unable to compete in her event, the women’s 10K classic.

Said Downing of her accident: “It was exactly the same spot that two elite men hit. They were just lucky enough to slide into it down low, while she hit the fence with her head.”

The bar was later covered with padding after Downing pleaded with the race jury to fix the safety hazard, Downing said.

Gary di Silvestri contracted a bacterial infection and was able to complete just 300 meters of his event, the men’s 15K classic. He was suffering from severe abdominal cramps, according to Downing.

Downing — who said he was there alongside the di Silvestris and has firsthand knowledge of the nature of their injuries and illness — was angered by reports that he said suggested the couple was somehow faking their health issues.

“There were fragments of bone that the surgeons were immediately concerned about them going into her brain,” Downing said of Morrone di Silvestri. “I know what it’s like to partially carry a man off a ski course. I don’t have to do that very often. I can guarantee the world that (Gary di Silvestri) was not faking an illness. This is all medically substantiated.”

It was certainly a challenging Olympic experience for Bend’s Downing, made even more so by the recent headlines.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com.