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Friends, family and skiers gather for Nik Zoricic funeral

The Canadian Press

3/19/2012 7:38:19 PM

TORONTO -- The day before he died, Nik Zoricic was hurling stones down a curling rink in a friendly battle against the Swiss skicross team.

It was a day of good times and lots of laughter -- a typical one in the skier's life.

"His last days were just as full of life as the rest of it," said his good friend and longtime teammate Dave Duncan.

Friends, family and teammates poured into a Toronto church Monday to bid farewell to the Canadian freestyle skier nine days after he died in a crash at a World Cup skicross event in Grindelwald, Switzerland, at the age of 29.

Zoricic and Duncan had been friends for the better part of two decades, growing up together on Ontario's ski slopes. They'd roomed together on the World Cup circuit for the past four years.

They'd spent their final few days together zip-lining across a gaping Swiss canyon on a giant swing. Their counterparts on the Swiss skicross team had taught them to curl.

"We were jumping off cliffs, we were zip-lining and just skiing in the sun," Duncan said outside the church following the service that was closed to the media. "We shared everything -- success, failure. He was my boy, it was great having him on the road, he's going to be missed."

Canada's entire skicross team -- including Olympic gold medallist Ashleigh McIvor and world champion Chris Del Bosco -- joined Duncan to pay tribute to the skier they called "Zoro" at Islington United Church, just west of downtown Toronto.

Ottawa Senators star Jason Spezza -- who was a friend of Zoricic's -- skipped practice Monday to attend, and was one of the pallbearers. The skier's 79-year-old grandfather Branko travelled from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina for the funeral.

Former Ontario premier David Peterson attended, along with Chris Rudge, the former CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee who's now the president of the Toronto Argonauts.

His friends recalled a man who everyone loved to be around.

"Nik was a showman, he was an entertainer, everyone gravitated towards him," Duncan said. "He was Zoro, he was the man."

Dave Ellis, the director of sport for the Canadian skicross team, pointed to the photo on the program cover of the towering six-foot-three skier clad in beaten up jeans, looking serious under thick brown eyebrows and long tousled hair.

"That says a lot right there," Ellis said, chuckling as he choked back tears. "The guy's stature, smile, charisma, loving heart, passion, drive. . . there's not enough words to describe the guy in a positive way. He was a first-class citizen. He's going to be dearly missed for sure."

Zoricic was remembered for skiing in jeans. The former alpine skier who switched to skicross in 2009 tugged on a pair of skinny jeans for his first freestyle race because he didn't have any ski pants that he felt were aerodynamic enough.

The day after he died, Canadian teammates donned jeans to ski down the Grindelwald course in his memory.

"One thing about the skicross athletes, they're a very tight community, a tight team, the men and women travel together so they really support each other well," said Alpine Canada president Max Gartner, who attended the funeral with wife and Olympic downhill champion Kerrin Lee-Gartner. "Although they're competing against each other they still work as a team so I think the other athletes were extremely affected by this whole tragedy."

The Toronto skier died of severe neurotrauma after he went wide over the final jump and landed directly into safety nets lining the side of the course. The organizers of the Swiss World Cup travelled to Toronto for the funeral.

Zoricic was 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.

"The No. 1 priority for us as an organization is the health of our athletes," Gartner said. "We know that there is risk in the sport, and a lot of people work very, very hard to try to make it as safe as possible, and this outcome is something that happens very very rarely, and we're all shocked. And I'm sure everybody looks at everything they can to make sports safer in the future."

Zoricic's goal was to compete at the 2014 Olympics as part of a Canadian skicross team that virtually owns the international podium. He earned his first World Cup points a month after strapping on freestyle skis, but failed to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

He finished eighth at the 2011 world championships, proof he was making progress. 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.

"He was still learning, he was picking up steam the whole way, another podium this year with the goal of Sochi," Duncan said. "That Olympic dream has been in him since I've known him, it was going to happen and for it to be cut short, the rest of us are going to have to pull up our boots and do it for him."

Zoricic was born in Sarajevo, one year before the city hosted the 1984 Winter Games as part of the former Yugoslavia. He moved to Canada at age five, where his father Bebe became an established alpine coach at the Craigleith Ski Club, about 150 kilometres north of Toronto.

"It was hard watching his family come in, then shaking Bebe's hand, right then it hit home, it's happening, we've lost Nik," Duncan said. "It was hard.

"For me, the thing I'm going to miss most is the conversations, being roommates, just sitting there shooting the (breeze), that's what I'm going to miss. Those conversations, I'll miss them for the rest of my life."