Freestyle ski star: Father both physically abusive and using me as cash cow

Kelly Sildaru appearing on Wednesday's edition of
Kelly Sildaru appearing on Wednesday's edition of "Pealtnägija". Source: ERR

Estonian freestyle ski star Kelly Sildaru says she has been the subject of domestic violence meted out by her father and coach Tõnis Sildaru over a lengthy period of time. Tõnis Sildaru has also used her career success as a way of maximizing earnings, she says.

Tõnis Sildaru is currently the subject of a criminal investigation, while the interview follows nearly a year's media report and speculation into both alleged physical abuse and alleged mismanagement of finances relating to Kelly Sildaru's sports success and ensuing winnings.

Appearing in an interview on ETV investigative show "Pealtnägija" which aired Wednesday night, Sildaru, whose freestyle skiing career started while she was a minor, also said that her father's main motivation in managing her career – which has seen her bag several major international trophies – was to make as much money as possible out of her. Tõnis Sildaru denies the charges.

Prosecutor's office: Investigating both domestic violence and embezzlement

"Pealtnägija" also revealed that the prosecutor's office initiated an investigation into Tõnis Sildaru, 39, in summer last year, into both alleged physical abuse and alleged major embezzlement.

Sirle Melk, senior prosecutor of the Northern District Prosecutor's Office, told "Pealtnägija" that: "We are investigating the events that took place in the period 2018-2019, namely physical abuse within the family, and also large-scale embezzlement."

The alleged domestic violence incidents also affected Sildaru's mother, Lilian Talving, who also appeared in the "Pealtnägija" interview.

Tõnis Sildaru denies the charges, and says that Lilian Talving has been orchestrating the claims. ""There are malicious games obviously going on here," Tõnis Sildaru told "Pealtnägija" over the phone.

Tõnis Sildaru during an earlier interview with ERR. Source: ERR

"Kelly is being manipulated by her mother and it is actually destroying the lives of two young people for life just for the sake of women wanting to take revenge on me," he went on.

Kelly Sildaru burst onto freestyle ski scene at age 13

Kelly Sildaru, now 19 – in fact the "Pealtnägija" interview was broadcast on her 19th birthday – first shot to international fame when, as a 13-year-old, she clinched her first gold medal at the sport's flagship X Games competition in Aspen, Colorado in January 2016, and has bagged two more golds at the contest since then.

She was nominated 2019 sports star in January last year, alongside javelin thrower Magnus Kirt and WRC rally driver and co-driver Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja, and has also won international awards in recognition of her success on the slopes.

Kelly Sildaru in action in early 2019. Source: Peter Morning/Red Bull Content Pool

She also picked up gold at the Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, in January last year. While she came in in third place at the  FIS Big Air Freeski World Cup stage in Kreischberg, Austria last month, a knee injury ahead of this year's X Games, where her younger brother Henry, 14, was also competing, at the beginning of the month forced her to withdraw.

Medical tests later revealed she had injured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and would be out of competition for at least three months.

Family disputes followed hot on the heels of success

Civil suits and criminal complaints had already followed in the wake of Kelly's Freestyle Skiing success, however, revolving around Tõnis Sildaru's management and use of money Kelly had won from competitions, sponsorship, and also support - including some which has come from the City of Tallinn.

Explaining her motivations for appearing on "Pealtnägija", Sildaru said that she wanted to publicly set the record straight.

With regard to the domestic violence allegations, she said she wanted to highlight the issues for others in a similar plight.

Sildaru told the show that: "The other thing for sure is that I just feel that maybe this story of mine can encourage other people as well. And maybe motivate them to take the steps I probably took too long [in taking]."

Sildaru's mother: After one incident I had to flee home to stay with a friend

Lilian Talving confirmed on the show that family disagreements had escalated into domestic violence, following psychological and verbal abuse. The first physical incident, Talving said, prompted her to flee the home to stay with friends.

The matter is subject to an investigation whose details "Pealtnägija" could not air, though examples of incidents the show was able to publicize included a recording from November 2018, where Tõnis Sildaru is heard to shout abuse at the girl in a tirade lasting about 15 minutes, after she was late for an agreed appointment.

Lilian Talving on 'Pealtnägija'. Source: ERR

Tõnis Sildaru says that such outbursts were required to bring a rebellious daughter to heel. He also admitted to "Pealtnägija" that he had acted in self-defense against Lilian Talving, from whom he is separated, and had also "detained" her.

Lilian Talving and Kelly Sildaru live together in an apartment in Tallinn's Mustamäe district.

Managing Kelly and Henry's careers became full-time job for Tõnis Sildaru

Sources also told "Pealtnägija" that disputes, including around alleged infidelities, had become physical – in July 2018 Talving said that she had fled to stay with a friend, Heiki Sõmerik, after suffering facial injuries. Sõmerik confirmed that the incident had happened and had seemed to have been an escalation in terms of force on previous cases.  

Tõnis Sildaru told "Pealtnägija" that managing his daughter's career, and also that of Henry, her brother, now aged 14, had become a full-time job over time, meaning he had to give up his previous profession, a development encouraged by the fact that the benefits of Kelly's success were now being reaped and were the family's main source of income.

Kelly and Tõnis Sildaru. Source: (Miles Holden/Red Bull Content Pool)

Kelly Sildaru said her motivation for continuing in the sport was: "Because I liked skiing, I wanted to do it, I just liked it, I did it because of that. For this reason, I probably got this far, then he (i.e. Tõnis Sildaru – ed.) definitely had very different the goals, primarily financial, in order to earn as much money as possible from me during my sporting career."

Signs of issues arose as early as 2017, where a serious knee injury while training in New Zealand force her to miss the Winter Olympics - which would have been her first - in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Physiotherapist: Tõnis Sildaru pushed Kelly too hard

Sirli Hinn, a physiotherapist who had worked long-term with the family, todl "Pealtnägija" that she felt Tõnis Sildaru had forced his daughter to return to training following the injury too early, disregarding any protests from Kelly.

Hinn said: " When she said she was in pain or that she was tired, the answer came that she shouldn't complain.

"Any adequate assessment of an athlete's state of health, especially one who is your own child that you both in training and at home, was completely lacking," Hinn added.

This went beyond mere ambition and a desire to motivate, Hinn said.

Kelly and Lilian had approached the Estonian Olympic Committee (EOC) in early 2020, and been referred to victim support, who had asked her why she had not approached the police and suggested she might have been protecting Tõnis Sildaru.

Allegations of escalating domestic abuse

As to when Kelly herself realized there were issues in her parents' relationship, while she did not put a timescale on it, she told "Pealtnägija" that she witnessed an escalation from verbal to physical abuse, prompting her to take her mother's side sometimes and ultimately coming to the stage where going public with an interview was the chosen option.

Lilian Talving concurred, noting that once Kelly started standing up for her, this put her, Kelly, in the same boat, in Tõnis Sildaru's eyes, as an enemy who needed subduing.

Sirli Hinn put the time-frame of matters coming to the point where Kelly was afraid as being some time in 2018, as expressed in messages to her.

Kelly Sildaru recalled an incident at a training camp in Finland, where Tõnis Sildaru had tried to confiscate her phone, prompting her to try to get away from him and ending with a physical strike.

"At that moment, it became clear, to the extent that I didn't dare make any more complaints or even a peep, I just started crying, I didn't dare say anything to him," Kelly added.

Tõnis Sildaru files criminal complaint ahead of 'Pealtnägija' broadcast

Having received a heads up that the "Pealtnägija" episode was going ahead, late last week, Tõnis Sildaru filed a cirminal complaint himself, accusing both mother and daughter of not only threats and physical abuse, but also theft, embezzlement and cyber fraud. Even Kelly's grandmother became involved, filing a crime report last Sunday that her granddaughter had been "attacking" her

Civil disputes in addition have numbered at least three, "Pealtnägija" found, with disputed sums exceeding the one million euro-mark, with arguments also revolving around a property in Saku, near Tallinn.

A compromise on the first of the disputes was reached in August 2019 – which concerned the property and who was named as permitted to live there, with further complications arising from how the family business had originally been set up, when Kelly and Henry were aged five and two respectively, and how assets would be shared.

Sildaru father, son, grandparents' statement: Family dirty laundry should not be aired publicly

Tõnis Sildaru issued a statement Tuesday ahead of the "Pealtnägija" broadcast which was co-signed not only by Henry Sildaru, but also Tõnis' parents, Aidi and Kalev, saying that they would not be engaging in further pubnlic interviews on the matter

The statement also notes that the issues had appeared in the media since spring last year and adds that while emotions had run high and things had been said which were later regretted, they did not think the dirty laundry should be aired punblicly, particularly keeping in mind both Sildaru children's future, and that a media circus should not ensue.

Ski association: Cooperation with both Tõnis and Kelly Sildaru always businesslike

The Estonian Ski Federation (Eesti Suusaliit) was also approached for comment by ERR's sports portal, saying its working relationship with Tõnis Sildaru had been businesslike and that financial and contractual decisions involving Kelly Sildaru had always been objective and transparent.

The ski federation also said it had done its best to help Kelly Sildaru achieve her goals, and had explained to her, once she reached the age of majority (i.e. 18) on support she received from the body, dealings with international competitions, expenses etc.

Readers with Estonian can see the entire "Pealtnägija" interview segment here.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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