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Bend Ski Coach Guides Caribbean Island To First Winter Games

The Northwest contribution to the U.S. Olympic team goes beyond athletes. A bunch of top coaches, ski tuners, wax technicians and physical therapists from here are Sochi-bound too.

And then there's the cross country ski coach from Bend, Ore., who is heading to Russia, but not with Team USA.

J.D. Downing runs the XC Oregon race team and training camps in Bend. Now he's wearing several additional hats, including head coach and "chef de mission" for the 2014 Dominica Olympic Team.

Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, Dominica is a former French and British colony in the eastern Caribbean. Downing says he's never visited the tropical island with a population roughly the same as Bend.

"The cool thing about the Olympics is that nations like Dominica can have a team," he says. "I'm involved because I knew these people. I had this relationship. They just said, 'Come along for the ride. We need you.' That's why I'm there. I wouldn't have ever imagined it."

Here's the connection Downing is talking about: Since 2005, an Italian-American couple has attended Downing's cross country ski training camps. Gary and Angelica Morrone di Silvestri are also major donors to charitable projects in Dominica. Gary di Silvestri says out of gratitude, the island's government awarded them dual citizenship a few years ago.

Then in late 2012, the Dominica Olympic Committee called to ask if Gary and Angelica would represent the country in the Sochi Games.

"We had done philanthropic work in the country," di Silvestri explains. "They knew us fairly well. We were the only ones who were roller skiing in 80 to 90 degree weather along their roads. So they were pretty quick to recognize us."

Di Silvestri says he and his wife had just over a year to raise their game to Olympic caliber, no small feat given that both are in their mid-40s.

Coach Downing says he's prepared for inevitable comparisons to another team from a place where it never snows.

"Everybody has the idea of the Jamaican bobsled team and that kind of thing," he says. "But this is really a different standard where these are folks who actually knew how to ski and just had to take their game up. I like that."

And it's Dominica's chance to step up too. This will be the first time the small Caribbean nation participates in the Winter Olympics.

But Sochi will be the fourth Winter Olympics for the 47-year-old Downing, each time in a different role. In 1998, he was on the Paralympic Games staff in Nagano. Four years later in Salt Lake City, he had a media credential. In 2006, he attended the Turin Games as a spectator.

In Sochi, team member Gary di Silvestri will compete in the men's 15 kilometer classic cross country ski race. His wife, Angelica, will compete in the women's 10 kilometer classic race.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.