Samuel Truempy, AP Photo/Keystone
GENEVA — Nik Zoricic's fatal crash in a skicross World Cup event in Switzerland appeared to be a freak accident, the Canadian ski team said Saturday as it mourned its second death this year.
The 29-year-old Zoricic died from head injuries sustained when he crashed into safety netting on landing wide right off a jump approaching the finish line at Grindelwald, a regular venue on the skicross international circuit.
"I would say it's a freak accident, from here," Alpine Canada President Max Gartner told reporters in a conference call from Toronto. "These accidents are extremely rare in sports.
"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's death will continue a debate on safety in skiing, particularly in the relatively new disciplines of freestyle skiing.
Zoricic died exactly two months after Canada's 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.
International Ski Federation (FIS) 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, where she had attended the races.
Television pictures showed Zoricic tumbling through safety nets, and being pushed back toward the course. He was treated by doctors before being airlifted to a hospital at Interlaken.
Zoricic was pronounced dead at 12.35 p.m. Swiss time (1135 GMT) as a result of "severe neurotrauma," FIS 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," FIS said. "The organizing committee, FIS and Swiss Ski express their deepest condolences to the family and friends of Nik Zoricic and the Canadian Ski Team."
The governing body will work with Swiss ski officials to analyze the crash and course security, while a formal accident investigation will be conducted by legal officers from the canton (state) of 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 said Alpine Canada was happy with the safety precautions in place for a sport it has 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.
"It's not fair to make statements from afar," he added, when asked about the Grindelwald course setting. He said "lots of races" place a jump close to the finish line.
Skicross — in which four racers jostle for an edge down a course of banks, rolls and ridges — debuted as an Olympic sport in 2010.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge described Zoricic's death as a "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. "Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and his fellow competitors."
The sport was defended by Zoricic's teammate Ashleigh McIvor, who won Olympic gold for the host nation at the Vancouver Winter Games two years ago.
"It's probably just as safe doing our sport as driving down the highway," she said in a conference call. "I don't think the finger should be pointed at any of the organization."
Lewis acknowledged that skicross was "a high-risk sport."
"Any sport where you put on a helmet, there is a reason for it," she 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.
Organizers abandoned Saturday's World Cup events for men and women, and the scheduled World Cup Finals races at the same course on Sunday.
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," 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."
It was a "surprise" to see Zoricic's line of flight off the jump, Egger said, adding that: "We put the fences there because you have to protect the racers for the finish area."
Egger said that "normal process" following a fatality would be an investigation by canton (state) attorney-at-law office.
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 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.
He was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, one year before the city hosted the 1984 Winter Games as part of the former Yugoslavia.
Aged five, he moved to Canada 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.
Canadian former Alpine racer Brian Stemmle tweeted: "I can't believe this tragic news. Nick Zoricic has died? I'm sick to my stomach."
United States racer 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 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. I think the focus should stay on grieving for Nik and his family."
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