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Canadian Zoricic dies after crash in Swiss skicross race

The Canadian Press

3/10/2012 8:08:19 PM

Another Canadian winter sport athlete has died in what the head of Alpine Canada is calling "a freak accident."

Nik Zoricic died from head injuries after flying off the course and crashing in a World Cup skicross event in Grindelwald, Switzerland, on Saturday.

The 29-year-old Toronto skier went wide over the final jump and landed directly into safety nets lining the side of the course. Television pictures showed Zoricic tumbling through the nets as his skis and poles were thrown clear.

The Canadian team said Zoricic was pronounced dead at a hospital in Interlaken, where he had been airlifted from the course by helicopter. The International Ski Federation (FIS) said in a statement that Zoricic died of "severe neurotrauma."

Zoricic is the second Canadian freestyle team member to die at their sport this year.

Winter X Games champion Sarah Burke, died from her injuries in January nine days after crashing during halfpipe training in Park City, Utah. The resident of Squamish, B.C., was also 29.

Skicross is a rough-and-tumble sport that Alpine Canada notes has been called "NASCAR on skis." Skiers launch themselves down a course full of jumps and turns.

"I would say it was a freak accident from here," Alpine Canada president Max Gartner said during a conference call from Fernie, B.C. "Those kind of accidents don't happen very often, they're extremely rare in the sport.

"Without being too specific, that's what I would qualify it (as) right now."

Gartner said Zoricic's death is not an indication skicross has become too dangerous.

"I would say the ultimate extreme sport is probably downhill racing," he said. "There is inherent risk in all the sports.

"I would not qualify skicross (as) being any more (dangerous) than many of the other sports."

IOC president Jacques Rogge called Zoricic's death "a very sad day for the whole Olympic Movement."

"He was a young, gifted athlete who tragically died doing the sport he loved," Rogge said in a statement.

Skicross is a sport Canadian athletes have excelled in, with Ashleigh McIvor of Whistler, B.C., winning Olympic gold at the Vancouver Games.

While admitting there are risks associated with skicross, McIvor says it's as safe as driving a car.

"The fact is there are risks associated with our sport and really pretty much everything I do in life," McIvor said Saturday on the same conference call. "I've unfortunately lost a lot of friends in the mountains and my friends who are from cities have lost a lot of friends to car accidents or a lot of other things.

"It's probably just as safe doing our sport as it is driving down the highway."

When McIvor heard rumours the International Olympic Committee was considering the inclusion of skicross for the 2010 Olympics, she wrote an essay for her University of British Columbia English class arguing for its addition. She compared skicross to BMX racing, which was about to make its debut at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The IOC made it official in November 2006, granting skicross entry to the Vancouver Games. The success and popularity of snowboard cross, which debuted at the 2006 Torino Olympics, was a major factor in the decision.

Zoricic was an alpine ski racer before taking up skicross, making his World Cup debut in the sport in January 2009. He earned his first World Cup points a month later but failed to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

He recorded his first World Cup podium Jan. 7, 2011 with a second-place finish before earning a bronze medal Jan. 15 in Les Contamines, France.

Organizers abandoned Saturday's World Cup events for men and women, and the scheduled World Cup final races at the same venue Sunday.

"Nik Zoricic fell heavily just before the finish in the round of eight, crashing directly into the safety netting and thereafter lying motionless," the FIS said. "The medical care from team doctors and Air Glacier followed immediately. Despite reanimation, Zoricic died at 12.35 as a result of severe neurotrauma.

"The organizing committee, FIS and Swiss Ski express their deepest condolences to the family and friends of Nik Zoricic and the Canadian Ski Team."

Alpine Canada said the Canadian team left the venue to deal with its loss but was planning to return to the course later Saturday night to hold a candlelight tribute to Zoricic in the finish area near where the accident occurred. Grief counsellors are also with the squad and are being made available for Alpine Canada personnel.

Gartner said he was unable to comment about what roles, if any, course safety and course design had in the accident because he was in Canada at the time of the event. But he added the FIS has very stringent regulations.

"What I feel confident in is there are rules and regulations, there's a FIS race director who inspects the course and there are coaches," Gartner said. "I'm sure all the protocol has been followed, I'm sure there's going to be more investigation into the accident after the fact.

"I think the focus should really stay on grieving for Nik and the family."

McIvor said FIS officials always err on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of athletes.

"FIS, every single event, steps in and overdoes it in making the course safer," she said. "The course builder has built this course that we think will be fun and FIS comes in and does its absolute best to make it safe to the point that some of the athletes go, 'What? That was going to be fun.'

"I don't think any fingers should be pointed at any of the organizations or anything like that. The fact is we do these sports because we love them and there are risks associated with them and there's only so much we can do to minimize those risks."

Grindelwald has been a venue on the skicross World Cup circuit since 2005. The Swiss village beneath the Eiger and Jungfrau mountain peaks was hosting a meeting for the fifth straight year.

"We are all very sad. It is unbelievable for us all," said Christoph Egger, president of the race organizing committee. "We are an experienced organizer but, nevertheless, skicross is a sport where four racers fight to win a race. In these circumstances there is a risk to fall or risk of injury, and since today we know there is a risk for death."

Egger said it was a "surprise" to see Zoricic's line of flight off the jump, though "we put the fences there because you have to protect the racers for the finish area."

Race organizers will work with FIS and the Swiss ski federation to analyze the accident and course security.

Egger said that "normal process" also requires an accident investigation by legal officers from the canton (state) of Bern.

Zoricic, a member of the Craigleith Ski Club in Ontario, has raced on the World Cup circuit for more than three years and was competing in his 36th event Saturday. He placed eighth in the 2011 world championships at Deer Valley, Utah.

Zoricic's father, Bebe, is a coach at the club.

In a statement posted on Facebook, the Craigleith Ski Club said: "We are deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of our friend Nik Zoricic as a result of a tragic ski accident during a race in Europe. Our heart felt sympathies to the Zoricic family."

Canadian alpine racer Kelly VanderBeek wrote on Twitter that she grew up skiing with Zoricic and his father.

"I'm a mess, so I can only imagine how his family is. I'm so very sorry. Sending Love," she wrote.

"I can't believe this tragic news. Nik Zoricic has died? I'm sick to my stomach," former Canadian skier Brian Stemmle wrote on Twitter.

American skier Ted Ligety also posted a message of condolence for Zoricic on Twitter soon after winning an Alpine World Cup giant slalom race in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.

"Skiing is a great sport that gives but it also takes, sad day to lose Nik Zoricic, you'll be missed bud," Ligety wrote.

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-- With files from The Associated Press