Their new look is all Nik Zoricic, they explained. From the red-and-white striped racing top right down to the blue jean-style pants, a tribute to how Zoricic had once competed in a World Cup race wearing blue jeans instead of his usual ski pants.
His teammates laughed back then but soon understood what drove the Sarajevo-born, Canadian-raised Zoricic. “If it wasn’t perfect,” said Brady Leman, “it wasn’t good enough for him.”
Zoricic died on an imperfect course this past March and now his Canadian ski-cross peers are set to begin a new season Friday at the inaugural Audi Nakiska World Cup in southern Alberta. The race will be the first World Cup since the 29-year-old Zoricic came off a jump and died of head injuries after slamming into a poorly designed finish area. It was a horrific accident that sparked much sorrow, anger and debate over how the sport could maintain its crash-and-go allure while ensuring the athletes were as safe as possible.
As the Canadian men’s and women’s team gathered Monday to show off its Zoricic-inspired racing suits, the question that kept making the rounds had to do with where the sport finds itself: is ski-cross safer now than it was last season?
Dave Duncan was Zoricic’s roommate on the road and represents all ski-cross athletes on a safety panel acknowledged by the International Ski Federation (FIS). A national team member since 2007 and still a competitor, Duncan is keen to discover how the Nakiska course will look and feel when training begins Thursday.
“There’s been a lot of talk throughout the summer about what needs to be done but the proof in the pudding will be seeing if they actually followed through with it,” Duncan said.
Alpine Canada held its second annual safety summit here in September and reviewed the Zoricic accident before passing several recommendations along to FIS. Of primary concern was getting better “course building and testing at the World Cup level prior to teams arriving at races” as well as “calling on FIS to draw from decades of alpine expertise in safety and event execution and develop an athlete-centred approach” to ski cross.
Alpine Canada president Max Gartner said courses now must be drawn up by “a collective group of course designers” instead of randomly done, as was the course where Zoricic died in Grindelwald, Switzerland. Duncan approved of the change.
“We need more resources to make sure we’re building the proper courses. We don’t want smaller courses,” Duncan pointed out. “We just want better designed courses that allow us to showcase our sport – so lots of time in the air, fun turns, enough room for passes, everything that makes the sport excitable and fun to watch.”
Georgia Simmerling wouldn’t have it any other way. Last December, she suffered a crash that injured her knees. This past February in Park City, Utah, she caught an edge heading into a jump, came off badly and crashed fracturing her C1, T1 and T3 vertebrae. Simply put, she broke her neck and back but didn’t need surgery. Instead, she spent six weeks in a neck brace.
All risks aside, including Zoricic’s death, she is anxious to race this weekend.
“The sport is only evolving and it’s getting safer,” she insisted. “We all love ski cross and we’re representing our country and we’re proud of it. I’m looking forward and ready to rock this season.”
While the 11 Canadians who will compete at Nakiska are physically primed, there is no telling how they will react emotionally to racing without Zoricic, on home snow, no less. Alpine Canada has spoken with its athletes and made grief counselling available over the summer. The hope is that the celebrating of Zoricic’s life and charm goes beyond the shared memories and blue-jean racing pants and carries all the way to the medal podium.
“After a tragic accident the team gets even closer,” Gartner said. “Hopefully they can honour him further by winning. It’ll be a tough race but we have a great opportunity to move on.”