A Canadian racer died in a World Cup skicross event Saturday, tumbling through safety nets in what ski authorities called a “freak accident.” It was the second death in less than two months of a freestyle skier from Canada.
Nik Zoricic died from head injuries when he crashed directly into the nets lining the side of the course after going wide over the final jump. As he went through the nets, his skis and poles were thrown clear.
Skicross – in which four racers jostle for an edge down a course of banks, rolls and ridges – debuted as an Olympic sport in 2010.
Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada, said he was satisfied with the safety precautions in place for a sport sometimes described as “NASCAR on skis.”
“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.
Gartner, speaking during a conference call from Toronto, said: “I would say it’s a freak accident, from here. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s devastating. We look at all our athletes as members of our family, so it’s hard.”
Zoricic died exactly two months after Winter X Games champion Sarah Burke crashed during halfpipe training in Park City, Utah. Burke died from her injuries nine days later. She was also 29.
Zoricic’s death will continue a debate on safety in skiing, particularly in the relatively new disciplines of freestyle skiing. International Ski Federation secretary general Sarah Lewis said Zoricic’s death had been “a terrible, tragic accident.”
“All the safety measures were in place,” Lewis told The Associated Press by telephone from Grindelwald, a regular venue on the skicross international circuit.
Zoricic was treated by doctors before being airlifted to a hospital at Interlaken. He was pronounced dead as a result of “severe neurotrauma,” the ski federation said in a statement.
“Nik Zoricic fell heavily just before the finish in the round of eight, crashing directly into the safety netting and thereafter lying motionless,” the federation said. The governing body will work with Swiss ski officials to analyze the crash and course security. An investigation will be conducted by legal officers from Bern.
“There will be plenty of discussions from all the experts on the technical side and coaches, and any improvements people feel are right to make, will be made,” Lewis said
Gartner, when asked about the Grindelwald course setting, said “lots of races” place a jump close to the finish line.
Zoricic raced on the World Cup circuit for more than three years and was competing in his 36th event Saturday. He placed fifth in last season’s World Cup standings, and eighth in the 2011 World Championships held at Deer Valley, Utah.
International Olympic Committee 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.
Zoricic’s teammate Ashleigh McIvor won gold for the host nation when it debuted as an Olympic sport at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“It’s probably just as safe doing our sport as driving down the highway,” McIvor said in a conference call. “I don’t think the finger should be pointed at any of the organization.”
Lewis acknowledged the potential danger in skicross, calling it “a high-risk sport.”
“Any sport where you put on a helmet, there is a reason for it,” Lewis said. “This was a World Cup competition where they were racing for positions. It was about trying to go as fast as possible.”
Zoricic had raced the course in training on Wednesday and qualifying rounds on Friday, and took an additional practice run on Saturday morning.
“They have an opportunity to accustom themselves to the speed, to see if it is different to yesterday,” Lewis said.
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 meet for the fifth straight year.
Organizers canceled the World Cup events for men and women on Saturday, along with the World Cup Finals races on Sunday.
“We are all very sad. It is unbelievable for us all,” Christoph Egger, president of the race organizing committee, told The AP by telephone. “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, but added: “We put the fences there because you have to protect the racers for the finish area.”
According to Gartner, Zoricic was “a model athlete” who began in Alpine racing before switching to skicross.
“He’s an extremely dedicated, quiet young man who has gone about his business and found his home in skicross. It was a pleasure to work with him and know him,” Gartner said.
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 5, where his father Bebe became an established Alpine coach at the Craigleith Ski Club in Ontario.
Canadian Alpine racer Kelly VanderBeek posted 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.
U.S. racer Ted Ligety also posted a message of condolence on Twitter soon after winning a World Cup giant slalom race in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
“Skiing is a great sport that gives but it also takes, sad day to lose Nick Zoricic, you’ll be missed bud,” Ligety wrote.
Organizers at Grindelwald helped provide grief counselors for the Canadian team, who were holding a candlelit memorial service for Zoricic in the course finish area on Saturday evening.
“The skicross team is a very tight-knit group,” Gartner said. “There is going to be a very intimate ceremony.”
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