A CBC News investigation has discovered a surprising rate of injury in the sport of ski cross, and a call by some international athletes supporting demands for an independent inquiry into a fatal crash that killed Canadian Nik Zoricic.
"I was lucky," says Jonas Devouassoux, who was racing with Zoricic that day. "Nik was on the right side of me...that was really difficult because every racer could have taken the same decision as Nik. I would have done the same thing in his position."
At an emotional news conference in April the family of Canadian ski cross racer Nik Zoricic called for an independent inquiry into safety issues in the sport.
Their son, Nik Zoricic died at a World Cup race in March when he veered off the course after a jump and crashed into a safety net just before smashing into a snow bank.
The family says the finish area on the course in Grindelwald Switzerland was a death trap and blamed lax safety measures for the death.
Devouassoux of France was one of the two other skiers racing beside Nik Zoricic that day.
He was a little ahead of the Canadian and admits he had a difficult time staying on the course because he says the last jump forced all the skiers to the right.
"I was lucky," he says Jonas Devouassoux. "Nik was on the right side of me...that was really difficult because every racer could have taken the same decision as Nik. I would have done the same thing in his position."
He agrees with the Zoricic family that there were problems with the finish area. He says it wasn't wide enough and there weren't enough safety fences.
"You must not die in a competition if you do such a small mistake because it was maybe a 20 centimetre mistake. That's not normal."
Devouassoux says the French team has been fighting for stricter safety measures in the sport for the past three years, ever since one of its skiers careened off the course at a World Cup event in January 2010 in Lake Placid New York.
Florent Astier broke his neck that day and was paralyzed just a few weeks before the sport made its Olympic debut at the Games in Vancouver.
Reached at his home in the south of France, Astier says he was horrified to see what happened to the Canadian.
It reminded him of his accident.
Astier was going over a jump when he made contact with another skier. He overshot the landing area which he says wasn't big enough for the speed he was going.
He say the sport is risky and there are going to be accidents. But he believes the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), the sport's international governing body, hasn't done enough when it comes to safety.
"They learn not enough after my accident," he says, especially after he had a chance to watch the video of what happened to Zoricic.
"It was on a jump for both. Both jumps in my race and Nik's race the jumps were not very safe."
Extreme sport is risky
Ski cross is a relatively new sport considered to be like Nascar on ice.
Skiers speed down the course at 100 kilometres an hour, sometimes four at a time going over jumps, bumps and other features.
Many of the athletes in the sport come from other Alpine disciplines which have been dealing with safety issues for years.
Devouassoux is one of those skiers who says ski cross has a lot of catching up to do.
"You know slalom in World Cup finish area is maybe two or three times wider than us and we are coming with 100 kilometres an hour so maybe two times faster than slalom."
Canada's ski cross racers speak out
Canada's ski cross team has been trying to deal with the loss of one of the team's popular athletes.
Dave Duncan has been on the Canadian national team the past five years and often roomed with Zoricic on the road and knows his family well.
"I fully support what the Zoricic family is trying to do. Not just ski cross but the entire sport of skiing will definitely benefit from an independent investigation to find out what exactly happened and what is the solution to fixing it so that we can make our sport safer so this doesn't happen again."
Last April the family called for an independent investigation from the office of a Toronto lawyer, Tim Danson, who has been involved in prominent legal cases, including some in sports .
The family also promised not to pursue a lawsuit if FIS agrees to the inquiry. They want people to feel free to come forward and they want the right safety measures put in place as soon as possible.
Duncan believes the transparency from an independent inquiry is exactly what the sport needs.
"If the Zoricics are willing to live by the findings, why can't others?" Duncan wonders.
Like the French racers, Duncan believes there was a problem with the finish area especially with the mound of snow that Zoricic crashed into. If it wasn't there Duncan believes his teammate would probably still be alive. He says the safety measures that exist aren't being enforced properly.
Duncan has had his own concerns over how little time there is between the construction of some of the courses and the actual competition.
He says they need to give athletes more time to train so officials can tweak things to make courses safer.
But he stops short of finding blame for what happened in Switzerland.
"I truly believe we're all guilty of what happened there. We all missed it, the athletes, coaches, organizing committee, FIS. It's easy to look back and see the error. I definitely didn't see it prior to it. But we all missed something."
High rate of injuries
One issue the Zoricic death has brought to light is what some sport insiders tell CBC is a high rate of injuries in the sport.
It's a sport with a lot of wear and tear on the athletes.
This year was particularly bad for the best women in the world. A majority of the top 16 women on the World Cup circuit, some say as many as 10, ended up with season ending injuries.
Canada saw three of its top four women go down and one of them was Georgia Simmerling. In February, she broke her neck and back and was in a neck brace for six weeks with limited mobility.
After weeks of rehab, she has fully healed.
Her injury didn't come from a massive jump. She was at a Grand Prix event in Utah where she caught an edge at the wrong time and ended up doing cartwheels on her skis, eventually landing on her back.
In this sport accidents and injuries like this happen she says, but when she takes a look at the number of injuries in ski cross this year, she's concerned.
"The best six girls from last year were injured this year and that is, I agree, an awful stat. Those are the strongest girls, the fastest girls and they were all injured."
She adds, "I do think maybe some things need to be changed to limit the injuries. That's a fact and that's a simple statement. I'd be surprised if everyone would not agree."
Simmerling, in her first year of ski cross, says maybe FIS needs to slow the athletes down by having courses with more turns. Maybe they should have smaller jumps or widen what's known as the spill zones after jumps so that there is more of a buffer zone in case an athlete ends up in trouble. She says something needs to be done to reduce the risks of serious injuries.FIS reacts
But in the same e-mail another FIS official, Freestyle Coordinator Joe Fitzgerald, says their records do not reflect anything like 10 of the top 16 female skiers being injured.
And Fitzgerald refutes claims the sport leaders have ignored safety concerns in the past.
"There has not been more of a 'push' from the French team and competitors in the past few seasons (for better safety measures)."
He goes on to say FIS has added more experts, including a former World cup skier, to test courses before competitions in the past two years and teams seemed happy with the results.
When asked if there will be an independent inquiry, along the lines of what the athletes are calling for now, Lewis had this to say.
"At present the police report (in Switzerland) is awaited and the next steps will be taken thereafter. These will certainly include investigating all aspects of safety in the sport".
That it's taken a catastrophic accident to get to this stage bothers French racer Jonas Devouassoux who says FIS hasn't listened to athletes in the past.
"It's really frustrating. It's always like this. You need a big plane accident to have more security (safety) on a plane. You need a death to move forward. That's not normal, should not happen. It's really frustrating when you are a racer."
Canada's Dave Duncan says ski cross was on a roll before the tragedy, attracting many young children to the sport especially after it made a compelling Olympic debut.
And now he's worried.
"We need to make sure the sport is safer...make sure no parent is afraid to put their kid in our sport," he says.
Duncan adds, "I would hate to see the sport lose momentum because we don't learn from this. I know parents are watching, kids are maybe watching. We have to get it right for the sake of our sport. And for the sake of Nik."
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