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Nik Zoricic Dead: After Canadian Skier Dies, Family And Teammates Express Gratitude For Support

03/11/2012 03:21 EDT | Updated 05/11/2012 05:12 EDT
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Dressed in blue jeans and joined by rival athletes, Canada's skicross team skied down the hill that claimed the life of teammate Nik Zoricic.

As the skiers approached the final jump, they stopped to pick up a flower before placing it at the spot where Zoricic died in a crash.

"It was a beautiful thing," said Canadian head coach Eric Archer.

Canadian athletes and officials were still trying to make sense of the Toronto skier's death Sunday, and they started by wearing jeans in honour of Zoricic's first World Cup skicross start after the 29-year-old made the switch from alpine skiing in 2009.

"He didn't really have any race pants to wear," Archer said on a conference call. "What he had was super baggy as far as ski pants and he decided to try and get a little more aerodynamic. And then the best thing he could think of was pulling on a pair of skinny jeans and pulling out of the start gate."

Zoricic went wide over the jump Saturday and crashed into safety nets at the event in Grindelwald, Switzerland. He was airlifted to hospital where the International Ski Federation (FIS) said he was pronounced dead of "severe neurotrauma," prompting questions about the safety of the course and the sport.

Montreal's Chris Del Bosco was in the same heat as Zoricic, and said they had been joking around before the race. As Del Bosco crossed the finish line he looked back to see his friend on the ground.

"I know in the heat of the battle trying to make up some ground, you had to be kind of paying attention to the line you were on heading into the finish," said Del Bosco, who added he hadn't seen anything earlier to suggest the course was dangerous.

Fellow teammate Dave Duncan of London, Ont., said he also inspected the course prior to the heats but had no reason to believe anything was wrong.

"Any time you go on the outside of a jump there's some risk there," he said. "But I didn't see anything, so I'll let the parties do their job and we'll see what they come up with and go from there."

Skicross debuted at the 2010 Olympics, joining its sister sport of snowboardcross in the latest attempt by the IOC to bring a more exciting, youthful feel to the Games. It's a dangerous discipline — known as "NASCAR on skis" — during which four racers jostle down a course filled with banks, rolls and ridges.

FIS and legal officers from the canton (state) of Bern each planned to investigate the accident.

"We wouldn't have been racing if we thought it was unsafe," said Archer. "That's what we've got to go through every event. Yesterday was the worst thing that can possibly happen. I saw the video right when it happened and I haven't reviewed it yet. I'll do that but at this point everything's been kind of a blur."

Funeral details have not yet been confirmed.

Zoricic's death came just two months after Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died from injuries sustained in a crash during halfpipe training in Park City, Utah. The resident of Squamish, B.C., was also 29.

Zoricic was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 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 became an established alpine coach at the Craigleith Ski Club, about 150 kilometres north of Toronto.

He earned his first World Cup points a month after his switch to skicross but failed to qualify for the 2010 Games. But an eighth-place finish in the 2011 world championships at Deer Valley, Utah, showed he was making progress.

"He adapted really quick, quicker than most," said Del Bosco. "He was one of the top guys in the world. On the podium a bunch, and definitely one of the strongest competitors."

In a statement, Zoricic's father said that no one regretted his son doing what he loved to do.

"Nik's dream was to make the national team and he did that," said Predrag Bebe Zoricic. "His other dream was to make the Olympics. Like every athlete, he had his ups and downs but he was on his way up when this happened.

"He was really enjoying this year. He was really happy."

Zoricic's father added that family members were very grateful for the support they have received.

Grindelwald has been a venue on the skicross World Cup circuit since 2005, and organizers cancelled the World Cup events for men and women on Saturday, along with the finals on Sunday.

As Canada's team prepared to leave Switzerland, little thought was given to the team's successful season. The Nation's Cup, awarded to Canada as the best overall team, remained in a silver case along with an individual athlete Crystal Globe award for Marielle Thompson.

The team planned to pull out the awards and make a toast to Zoricic at dinner Sunday.

Duncan, who grew up racing with Zoricic in Collingwood, Ont., described his friend as an athlete with "fire in his belly."

"Everything's different now," Duncan said. "And it's not going to be the same."

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With files from The Associated Press.

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Nick Zoricic Dead: Ski Racer Dies During Skicross Crash In World Cup Event