Canada's ski community is once again in mourning after Toronto skier Nik Zoricic died from head injuries suffered in a crash during a World Cup skicross race in Switzerland.
Zoricic, 29, was airlifted to a hospital on Saturday right after he went wide over the final jump and crashed heavily into safety nets lining the side of the course.
His death was later announced by the International Ski Federation and the Craigleith Ski Club, north of Toronto. The FIS said in a statement that Zoricic died at 12:35 p.m. local time from "severe neurotrauma."
Dave Campbell, the head coach at Craigleith, called Zoricic a "very competitive young man, a very talented athlete," and told CBC News he was a role model at the club for young racers.[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=2038 size=small]
"The atmosphere is a state of great loss and mourning here. A lot of people are still in shock and our thoughts go out to the whole Zoricic family," he said.
Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada, said grief counsellors are with the team; a candlelight vigil will be held at the race's finish area later Saturday.
"Today is a very sad day," Gartner told reporters during a conference call. "Everybody in this organization is devastated."
Gartner hailed Zoricic as a "model athlete," who was "extremely dedicated" to his sport.
In his Toronto neighbourhood, the reaction was sombre and tearful.
"Such, such a tragedy," Zoricic's grandmother Sofia Drudar said. "I'm old already — still here. He's so young — gone. I don't know what to say."
"We just came apart, we're broken," said Joe Curkovic, a friend of Zoricic. "We don't know the details of it. It doesn't matter. We lost Nik today and we'll miss him. He's like family to us."
Zoricic is the second competitive Canadian skier to die this season.
Freestyle skier Sarah Burke, 29, who was raised in Midland, Ont., and lived in Whistler, B.C., died at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, after a fall during a superpipe training run on Jan. 10 at the Park City Mountain resort.
Todd Brooker — a member of Canada's famous men's downhill ski team dubbed the "Crazy Canucks" that took the sport by storm in the 1970s and 1980s — recalled coaching Zoricic revelled in the excitement of skicross.
"When he started into it, it was evident right away that he had what it took to be good at it," Brooker told CBC News in an interview from Ontario's Collingwood ski area, where Zoricic got his start.
Brooker questions safety of jump
Brooker, who said he saw the video of Zoricic's crash, also expressed concerns about the design of the course, especially the jump just before the finish, which he called "absolutely massive."
"The jump was way too big to have near the finish line and posed one of the biggest challenges, and also the biggest risks on that course," he said. "To me, it wasn't right."
When asked whether the course design might have contributed to the crash, Alpine Canada's Gartner said World Cup events have many "rules and regulations," but he added there would be an investigation.
"It's important today that … we want to make sure that we focus on family and team," he said.
But Gartner also said such accidents were "extremely rare" and stressed safety is "at the forefront of our organization."
"I wouldn't qualify skicross as more dangerous than any other sport," he added.
Ashleigh McIvor, the first gold medal winner of women's skicross at the 2010 Winter Olympics, acknowledged the sport carried risks that officials try to minimize.
"I don't think any fingers should be pointed at any organization," McIvor said Saturday. "The thing is we do this sport because we love it."
FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis said conditions at the Grindelwald venue were very good.
"But there is risk," she added. "As soon as you put on a helmet you know there is going to be risk, and when you try to get past the ones in front of you, you take chances."
Skicross known as 'rough and tumble'
Scott Russell of CBC Sports said Zoricic's death is a "tragic loss for Canadians and ski racing in general." Skicross, which features four racers on the course at one time, is renowned for its physicality, he added.
"Skicross is match racing on real rough and tumble terrain," Russell told CBC News on Saturday.
Zoricic was part of an event that made its debut at the 2010 Olympic Games in Whistler, B.C. He started off as an alpine racer and made the switch to skicross in order to get to the Games, Russell added.
He was born in Sarajevo and made his home in Toronto. He trained at the Craigleith Ski Club in the Blue Mountain area on the shores of Georgian Bay.
"He was a real up-and-comer on the skicross circuit and had been the podium a couple of times," Russell said. His best moment, Russell said, was a third-place finish in Austria in the 2011 season.
Zoricic raced on the World Cup circuit for more than three years and was competing in his 36th event Saturday. He placed eighth in the 2011 World Championships held at Deer Valley, Utah.
Organizers said on the race website that Saturday's World Cup event has been cancelled.