BIG SKY, Mont. — The tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica will be represented in its first-ever Winter Olympics by a husband-and-wife team whose Olympic dreams have gone from fading with middle age to becoming a reality.
American-born Gary di Silvestri, 46, and his Italian-born wife, 48-year-old Angelica, are unlikely ambassadors for the country of 70,000 better known for its tropical climate and black-sand beaches than its winter sports. But when Dominican officials heard the International Olympic Committee's 2012 call for more Caribbean participants in the Winter Games, they saw two of their newer citizens as the best chance to qualify.
The couple took on the challenge.
"We were on board to get the notoriety for the country and to establish a following for the youth in Dominica," Gary di Silvestri said between training sessions at Montana's Yellowstone Club. "There's nothing, there's no background or history. So we thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to get that established."
The di Silvestris have skied competitively in the U.S., Canada and Europe for years, but preparing Dominica and themselves for Sochi was a completely new endeavor. Everything had to be built from scratch, from the creation of a local ski association in Dominica to membership in the International Ski Federation, a lengthy process that left them with only a few months and a few races to qualify for the games.
They still did not know whether they were headed to Sochi until Jan. 25, when Angelica completed her final qualifying race in Maine, her last chance to make the cut.
Now, she will walk alongside Gary as he carries the flag for the little-known country on the biggest stage of all — the Feb. 7 opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.
"It will be the highlight of our athletic careers and the experience of a lifetime," Angelica said. "You have the Olympic committee from Dominica really putting all their hopes on us, and the last thing we wanted to do was disappoint.'"
Angelica is competing in the 10km women's cross-country skiing event on Feb. 13, while Gary is racing in the 15km men's event the next day. They will be up against world-class athletes half their age, and they know that the odds are against them winning a medal.
"Beyond underdogs," Gary said in describing the couple. "These guys are training twice what we have, have dozens of support staff, have been on skis since the age of 1. That's all they do."
By comparison, the di Silvestris hired their own coach, J.D. Downing of Bend, Ore., and their own wax technician with the help of an Internet ad. Those four, along with Dominican Olympic Committee President Felix Wilson, will make up the entire Dominican contingent in Sochi.
The di Silvestris themselves have organized and paid for the entire venture — down to the uniforms they will wear, they said. Now they find themselves with the additional task of arranging visas and finding transportation for themselves and their equipment.
"We want to help the country. We never wanted to ask the country for help," Angelica said.
The 289-square-mile island between Martinique and Guadeloupe is a former British colony with mountains, a tropical rainforest and an economy based on exporting bananas and other agricultural products, but not much in the way of snow or organized winter sports.
The nation's foray into the Winter Games was largely unknown by its residents until the di Silvestris made the cut. Now, residents are embracing the two expatriate citizens who will represent them, said Dominican Olympic Committee secretary general Thomas Dorsett.
"We never thought it was possible," Dorsett said. "It will be a great occasion for the country, knowing that they never had anybody to represent Dominica (in the Winter Games)."
Dorsett expects interest in winter sports will rise after Sochi, particularly among the large number of the nation's students attending school in the U.S. and Canada.
"Many expatriate children, I think, are willing and able and want to get on board now that they know the door is opened," he said.
The di Silvestris do not keep a residence in Dominica. They first visited the island several years ago as tourists and fell in love with it, Angelica said.
They returned and made financial contributions to the country's educational system and other projects identified by the government to improve the island and the life of its residents — the di Silvestris declined to elaborate on the projects and the amount they contributed.
In return, the Dominican government granted them citizenship.
Now, Angelica has dual Italian-Dominican citizenship, while Gary — a Staten Island native — has three passports: American, Italian and Dominican.
Once the Sochi Olympics are over, they plan to continue competing, with their eyes already on the Nordic World Ski Championships in Sweden in 2015. They also said they plan to continue being ambassadors for their sport in Dominica and around the world.
"This isn't just an Olympic issue, it's to provide the incentive for any Caribbean nation to get involved in winter sports," Gary said.