In the minutes following the death of his son on a ski cross hill in Switzerland, Bebe Zoricic had to bear his grief in silence.
He had taken a team of young Ontario athletes to a ski competition in Whistler, B.C., and his phone lit up early Saturday morning with an Alberta “403” area code.
He had been up since 3 a.m., trying to watch the race in Europe on the Internet, but service was poor and he had not seen the race.
Mr. Zoricic expected the worst, knowing the call was coming from a Calgary-based ski cross official who was in Switzerland. He’d had a call like this once before, when his son was on the alpine team and he’d suffered a concussion. Mr. Zoricic thought his son had perhaps broken a leg or suffered some other injury.
He didn’t expect to hear that it was far worse than he had imagined.
Mr. Zoricic didn’t want to wake the athletes in his care, because they were to race that day. “I was shook,” Mr. Zoricic said. “I don’t think I was crying. Maybe a little bit, but I had to be quiet.”
It was too early to phone home to Toronto, so Mr. Zoricic called his father, Branko, who lives in Sarajevo. Nik was Branko’s only grandson, and the man who is to turn 80 in August knew every detail about Nik’s career.
“He was his lifeline,” Bebe said.
At first, Branko thought Nik was on the line.
“How was it?” Branko asked.
“It’s not Nik,” Bebe said. “It’s me.”
“Do you know the results?” Branko asked.
“I know, but just sit down.”
For days, Mr. Zoricic’s inbox and Facebook page have been flooded by well-wishers sending along photos and messages of support, including one from a devastated young student who won a North American competition earlier this week “for Nik.” There was even a note and photos from Nik’s boyhood friend, NHL star Jason Spezza. Nik was part of Mr. Spezza’s wedding party in 2009.
It warmed the father’s heart when he received a message from Tomas Kraus, a two-time world champion ski racer from the Czech Republic, who praised Nik’s kind nature and sportsmanship. He was never the type to use a dirty trick to get a win, Mr. Kraus told him. Safety was key. “I was really proud that a legend would say that,” Mr. Zoricic said.
Mr. Zoricic says he cannot look at the footage of the accident. “I’m battling myself, but I’m not ready yet.” He won’t go any further than to watch the next-to-last jump, over which Nik appeared composed and in control, while the skier ahead of him was fighting for balance.
But already over the second-last jump, the lead skier was too far to the right, as was the one in second place. Nik, racing in third place, “had nowhere to go,” Mr. Zoricic said.
Mr. Zoricic himself was a skier in Sarajevo, but did not qualify for the powerful Yugoslavian team, chock full of World Cup champions. He worked as a forerunner during 1984 Olympic Games, testing the conditions of the ski hills. That’s where the desire was born to have his son succeed where he could not.
He and his wife, Silvia Brudar, had lived in their house near Sarajevo for only six months when they decided to move to Canada. It wasn’t because there was any political or economic strife. It was because they wanted to give five-year-old Nik and his one-year-old sister a better life.
They came with two-way tickets, thinking if they didn’t like it, they could always go back home. They never sold their home in Sarajevo, but they never moved back. The family arrived with suitcases of clothes and ski bags, thinking they’d hit the slopes as soon as possible, before realizing it was an expensive sport in Canada.
Nevertheless, Ms. Brudar got a job at a bank within days, Mr. Zoricic worked for Sporting Life tinkering with ski bindings, and they got onto the slopes three weeks after arriving.
Nik was 29 when he died, and he’d already done a lot of soul-searching about his future. But he decided he had unfinished business with the Olympic quest on a mountain in Russia.
“He decided to keep going,” Mr. Zoricic said. “He thought, ‘I can go all the way. I have to do it for myself.’ ”