Ski cross coach Stanley Hayer heard about the death of Nik Zoricic on a day when some of his teenaged students were about to take part in a Nor-Am race at Lake Louise, Alta., last Saturday.
The race went on. The youngsters wanted to go down the hill, in memory of Zoricic. "They might think twice about making a pass or hitting a jump," Hayer said. "But that is good. It's always good in any sport when you actually use your brain."
Hayer, an Olympian who skied with Zoricic, said it was a hard day emotionally, but made easier by busying himself with young skiers. Thankfully, he said, the course was easy and didn't challenge anyone on a difficult day.
"The parents were there and the kids were there," Hayer said. "They raced for Nik."
Hayer will find out this morning on a conference call if Canada will send a team of young skiers to the world junior ski cross championships on March 20 in Italy. Marielle Thompson, 19, of Whistler, B.C., winner of the Crystal Globe last weekend for women at the elite level, is eligible for the event, but has pulled out. She was in Switzerland on Saturday when Zoricic died.
Hayer said the parents of his students are fine with the sport and want to push on. "They understand some of the risks," he said. "They trust me to minimize the risk."
Hayer said members of the ski-cross community "have all broken down plenty of times in the last few days," but he says they really have to go on and "do it for Nik."
Hayer has been coaching teenagers for the past 1½ years since a knee injury prompted his retirement after the Vancouver Olympics. He's been a bit of a mother hen to the young skiers, always focused on safety. He has a protocol: if he feels they are not up to the course, or it they "look really scared" or the course is built wrong, he has the option to pull them from the race.
"Sometimes you have to dictate what they try because sometimes people do push themselves to the limit too early in their skill development," he said.
The elite ski-cross racers make their own decisions – but their skills are well developed, he said.
Hayer was a downhill skier before he made the switch to ski cross in 2003. He never liked downhill. It frightened him.
In ski cross, he would occasionally come across a track with a feature that frightened him, but after inspections and training runs, officials could adjust the course, and by the end of the week, they had also learned how to ski the features.
"Maybe crashing or breaking a leg, you think about that sometimes," he said. "And as you get older, you think about it more, for sure."
Hayer also competed at X-Games, which has always offered enormous jumps. Two years ago, Hayer faced a finish jump of 120 metres. "It was ridiculous," he said. "But it was ski-able and it was actually perfect, once you got used to it and once they adjusted it a little bit."
During the first few days of an event, ski cross racers are a bit like guinea pigs, he said, until courses are adjusted.
In Grindelwald, Switzerland, where Zoricic died, skiers ran down the course 10 times. All of the Canadian skiers liked it, Hayer said. "They never thought there was anything wrong with it. It's one of the first courses that there wasn't anything that needed changing."
Some athletes just crash more than others, Hayer said, but Zoricic wasn't one of those. Ski cross racing is not doing to disappear, Hayer said. He calls is "a pretty safe sport." He was part of it for eight years, and blew up his knee.
"I didn't even crash," he said. "That could happen walking down the street."