03/11/2012 09:44 EDT | Updated 05/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Skier Zoricic's Fatal Crash Raises Course Safety Questions


As friends and family mourn the death of Canadian skicross competitor Nik Zoricic, his teammates say they noticed nothing dangerous about the World Cup course where he died.

Zoricic, 29, died from head injuries suffered after he slammed into the safety nets near the final jump of Saturday's fourth heat of the skicross finals in Grindelwald, Switzerland.

Skicross heats feature four racers heading down the slopes, side by side, on a course filled with banks, rolls and ridges. Since the accident, questions have been raised about the placement and size of the final jump before the finish line, as well as the narrow space between the finish line's two pillars.

Among those expressing concern about the course after the accident was Todd Brooker, a member of Canada's famous men's downhill ski team dubbed the "Crazy Canucks" that took alpine skiing by storm in the 1970s and 1980s

But Zoricic's Canadian skicross teammates Chris Del Bosco and Dave Duncan said Sunday they didn't notice anything unsafe in previous runs or course inspections about the final jump.

"I know for me after inspection and training on the course there was never one question about that part," Del Bosco told reporters at an emotional media teleconference from Grindelwald.

"It just never crossed my mind."

Del Bosco, who was in Zoricic's heat on Saturday, said he hasn't yet seen footage of the crash.

"I got off the gate in front and kept my head down [at the finish]," he said. "When I looked back up, he was laying there."

Dave Ellis, director of sport for Canada’s skicross program, was on the course at the time of the crash. He said Zoricic was unconscious when he arrived on the scene.

Ellis praised the Swiss medical staff on site as "exceptional" in preparing Zoricic for airlifting. When Ellis got to the hospital, Zoricic was already pronounced dead.

"I don't believe there was much suffering," he said Sunday.

Emotional ceremony

Duncan, who grew up with Zoricic skiing in Ontario's Collingwood area, said his friend and teammate "had a zest for life" and a "fire in his belly" when it came to competition.

His teammates and coach said the skicross community came out to celebrate Zoricic on Sunday morning on the course, some wearing blue jeans in memory of his first skicross race in a pre-Olympic event at Vancouver's Cypress Mountain.

"He didn't really have any race pants to wear," head coach Eric Archer said, recalling Zoricic's "baggy" ski pants. "He decided to get a little bit more aerodynamic and the best thing he could think of was blue jeans."

The athletes and coaches said a few words at the top of the course in Sunday's vigil, then skied down to the final jump, where they picked up flowers to place at the finish line as they said their goodbyes.

"It was a beautiful thing," Archer said. "They would know what Nik would want us to do and not have this knock us down."

Final jump 'just wasn't right': Brooker

While Alpine Canada's Max Gartner has said an investigation will be held into what he called a "freak accident," the skicross team's head coach said Sunday that every course has a "little spot" where coaches and officials might raise concerns that are addressed in inspections and training runs.

"We wouldn't have been racing yesterday if we thought it was unsafe," Archer said in the conference call from Switzerland.

Former downhiller Brooker told CBC News on Saturday he believed the Swiss skicross course was too difficult.

"In my view, that jump was way too big to have that close to the finish line," Brooker said. "And it posed one of the biggest challenges but also the biggest risks on that course. To me, it just wasn't right."

'We do this sport because we love it'

Those who knew Zoricic say he knew full well the risk that came with his sport and thrived on the competition.

Zoricic's teammate Ashleigh McIvor won gold for Canada when the sport some have described as winter's answer to roller derby debuted at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She acknowledged skicross racing carries risks that officials try to minimize.

"It's probably just as safe doing our sport as driving down the highway," McIvor said. "I don't think the finger should be pointed at any of the organization. The thing is we do this sport because we love it."

Despite the inherent danger, Gartner said he was satisfied with the safety precautions in place for the race in Grindelwald.

"We're pretty confident that this was a World Cup race and there's lots of rules and regulations, and inspectors on site," he said.

International Ski Federation (FIS) secretary general Sarah Lewis said Zoricic's death had been "a terrible, tragic accident." She insisted "all the safety measures were in place."

'We're broken'

FIS officials immediately abandoned the race and cancelled Sunday's World Cup events. Alpine Canada grief counsellors were meeting with skiers.

Friends and family have expressed shock at Zoricic's death. But Zoricic's father, Predrag Bebe Zoricic, said in a statement that there are no regrets from anyone because his son did what he loved to do.

His father said the family is grateful for the many phone calls and messages that have come in from friends and supporters.

The skier was the same age as Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died in January after crashing during a training run in Utah.

"We just came apart, we're broken," said Joe Curkovic, a friend of Zoricic. "We don't know the details of it. It doesn't matter. We lost Nik today and we'll miss him. He's like family to us."

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