Teammates and fellow ski cross competitors made a memorial run Sunday down the course the killed Canadian Nik Zoricic, leaving flowers at the spot where he died a day earlier in a crash during a race.
"We met at the start at 10:30 this morning. Said some words. Had a moment of silence," Canadian ski cross coach Eric Archer said, the emotion evident in his voice. "Everyone proceeded to ski down the course to the finish line. Everyone stopped at the final jump and grabbed a flower and one by one we went down to where Nik left us, and placed the flowers and said our goodbyes."
Zoricic, a 29-year-old Sarajevo-born skier, was daring. He took chances – including the chance to win – and he loved a big show.
His mother, Sylvia Zoricic, said skiing "was everything in his life.
"I don't know what to say. He grew up at the Craigleith club where everybody was your friend, and he learned well. But sport is unpredictable. It happened. He lived his dream ... but it happened."
When the Toronto-based skier reached a World Cup podium for the first time with a silver medal 14 months ago, he loved the festivities at St. Johann, Austria.
"It was a great race, with a great atmosphere, watching people under the lights. I wanted to do something big and I did," Zoricic said then. There was no holding back the Canadian's enthusiasm.
He'd gotten to the top of the slippery hill by riding first on a snowmobile, then a 15-passenger van. He said course workers had heeded that the track was too steep and too dangerous the previous year when competitor after competitor had to be carted away after crashes. Then he uttered words that were prophetic.
"There were too many helicopters," he said. Zoricic took his last helicopter ride Saturday, as doctors tried in vain to save him when he was airlifted to an emergency facility in Interlaken.
Zoricic said he was not afraid of a sport often described as motocross or roller derby on snow.
"You have to be courageous and very, very confident to go in there and roll the dice," he said. He doubted alpine skiing stars could instantly win ski cross. Speed is one thing but speed in close quarters is risky, he observed.
"Technical ability is important, but you need some courage for sure. You have to be good in the air, good in gliding," he said.
Ashleigh McIvor who was the first women's Olympic gold medalist, had known Zoricic since age 13 when both were in an international juvenile race as alpine skiers.
"What a lot of people don't realize is that ski cross racers travel together, men and women. Those guys are like my brothers, the girls are like my sisters." she said. She called Zoricic's death "absolutely horrible."
Zoricic was born in Sarajevo and moved to Toronto at age 5. He switched to ski cross from alpine racing between 2006 and 2009. He had raced on the Nor-Am circuit for a few years with middling results. Knee injuries also slowed his progress and "my alpine career kind of ran its course."
In his first 16 World Cup ski cross starts, he had only one top 10 – an eighth-place finish in Sweden last March – and an average placing of 29th.
When he started this season with a fourth and an eighth in back-to-back World Cup races at Innichen, Austria, in mid-December, he said he'd found his calling, and thanked coaches for staying the course with him as he made his way through the learning curve.
Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada, said he was "devastated by the news" he got at 4 a.m.
"I knew Nik well from his alpine days. His dad is a famous ski coach at Craigleith [near Collingwood, Ont.] he's produced many top ski racers," Gartner said of Predrag (Bebe) Zoricic, who was scheduled to teach in Whistler on Saturday.
"Nik's a model athlete … extremely dedicated quiet young man who'd gone about his business and found his home in ski cross. He's had podium results … It was a pleasure to work with him and know him," Gartner said, fighting tears.
Nik Zorcic himself had been a teacher on alpine slopes in the Collingwood area.
Ken Read, Own The Podium's winter sports director, was at the world junior alpine championships in Italy on Saturday when he learned of Zoricic's death. Read had been president of Alpine Canada when Zoricic was working his way up the alpine development program. Zorcic had been coached by his father Bebe, known for his love of skiing.
"Bebe's coached a lot of kids I know. He's a well-known person in the Collingwood community," Read said. "He's touched all the top athletes coming out of Ontario. He's passionate about ski racing. He's put his heart and soul into helping kids get better."
Read said Nik Zoricic left alpine skiing in 2006 to take up ski cross. This year was being hailed as a breakout season, with him making a World Cup podium and adding to the depth of an already strong Canadian men's team.
"It takes time to learn the nuances of how ski-cross works," explained Read. "It takes two years to get comfortable and to learn the tracks … The catastrophic is rare in skiing, fortunately. But it can happen. The community is small. The community is tight. Everybody feels it."
Downhill racer Kelly Vanderbeek of Kitchener, Ont., tweeted: "I grew up skiing with Nick and his dad. I'm a mess, so I can only imagine how his family is. I'm so very sorry. Sending love."
Vanderbeek's boyfriend, Canadian Olympic kayaker David Ford, also wrote on Twitter: "As the partner of a Canadian downhiller this is my greatest fear realized. My deepest condolences to the Zoricic family."
The Canadian Olympic Committee's president, Marcel Aubut, sent condolences to the friends, family and teammates of Zoricic, "as well as to all those at Alpine Canada. Nik was an inspiring example of the passion in sport so important to our national pride and identity. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and everyone in the ski and sport community during this difficult time."