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Zoricic family sets deadline for investigation into skicross racer's death

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TORONTO - Sylvia Zoricic is well past the point of wanting an apology for her son Nik's death.

"I want change," the skier's mom said.

Almost a year to the day Nik Zoricic died at a World Cup event in Switzerland, his family said it is thoroughly fed up with the international ski federation's lack of response. The family has set a deadline for an investigation into the Canadian skicross racer's death and is threatening legal action.

"I don't want change just for Nik, there are so many athletes out there exposed," Sylvia Zoricic said. "Over the years we somehow have compromised safety and athletes deserve, they have the right, the basic human right to compete and train in safe conditions. Compromising that is not an option."

The skier fondly known as "Zoro" sustained fatal head injuries on March 10 of last year when he landed wide ride of a final jump near the finish line at Grindelwald. He was 29.

His family appealed last April for an independent and transparent investigation into his death, but it has seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Now the family has set a deadline of June 15, and if Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) and Alpine Canada do not agree to undertake an investigation, the family will commence legal action on June 16 against both governing bodies.

"Through Sport Canada, Canadian athletes are funded by all Canadians to represent athletic excellence and the Canadian values around the world, to act as role models for our children and our younger athletes," said Tim Danson, the family's high-profile lawyer.

"Our athletes make us proud to be Canadian. Nik Zoricic upheld his end of the bargain. He represented Canada with pride, honour and distinction. Canadian athletes must know that, in return, Canada has their back."

Alpine Canada said in a statement that it "supports the Zoricic family's continued efforts to raise awareness about safety issues in sport and applaud the prevention and education initiatives currently being undertaken by the Nik Zoricic Foundation.

The statement also said Alpine Canada is disappointed that the Swiss report has not been published.

"With respect to calls for a separate, independent investigation, we continue to await the publication of the final Swiss police report and look forward to reviewing the investigation's findings," it said. "Safety is our No. 1 priority. Alpine Canada continues to work with the International Ski Federation to implement safety initiatives at the World Cup level through the Ski Cross Working Group and the Ski Cross Advisory Group."

Danson, who is representing the Zoricics pro bono, held a news conference at his downtown office to announce the deadline, expressing the family's outrage over the Swiss police investigation report that concluded the skier's death was a "freak" accident. The lawyer called it "either the most incompetent police investigation I have ever seen in over 32 years of practice, or it was intended to protect powerful interests in Switzerland."

He presented a point-by-point critique of the report, while Zoricic's dad Bebe displayed photos that showed how every skier in the race was pulled to the right of the course on the final jump where Zoricic crashed.

Another large photo propped up on a display board was of the six-foot-three ski-racer himself, clad in beaten up jeans, looking serious under thick eyebrows and long tousled hair.

Skicross involves four skiers racing each other down a course of bumps and jumps. The first one over the finish line wins.

Zoricic, who grew up in Toronto, touched down in what would be his final race in what skiers call "crud" just off the course rather than on a groomed shoulder, snagged safety netting, and tumbled into hard-packed snow, smashing his head.

Bebe Zoricic, who called the Swiss police report a "whitewash," said the poor design of the Grindelwald finish steered skiers right, the safety netting was of the wrong type, there was no "spill zone" and the mound of cement-like snow should not have been there.

"He's an athlete, he just goes to win, no matter, he wasn't thinking slow down, he's just going to win. Then gravity just took him to that side . . . it kept taking everybody," he said.

The longtime ski coach also believes because skicross is a new sport — it made its Olympic debut in 2010 in Vancouver — it lacks the same kind of support system as the more established skiing disciplines.

"This is a message to all the parents, you'd better make sure if you put kids in new sports, make sure there is be some accountability behind," he said.

Danson called upon FIS, Alpine Canada and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper to respond to their demands to make the sport safer.

The lawyer said along with last with April's request for an investigation, the Zoricics agreed to sign in advance a full release absolving all parties of any liability, but neither FIS nor Alpine Canada agreed.

"That leaves us with only two options: capitulation or litigation — capitulation is not an option — capitulation will not be Nik's legacy," Danson said. "Truth will be Nik's legacy. Safety in sport will be Nik's legacy."

The family, said Sylvia Zoricic, is "in disbelief" over the international ski federation's lack of response and a police report they say is an insult to Nik.

"It's extremely hard to comprehend what is going on," she said. "We are receiving calls, emails from athletes around the world. They're counting on us to help them make a change. They support us, they expect us to do something. Giving up is just not an option, making a positive change is. We now owe it to all of them."

The outpouring of support from the international skiing fraternity, Bebe Zoricic added, has been overwhelming.

"Seeing the community behind us and his friends and everybody else support and hoping we're going to make a change makes (dealing with Nik's death) much easier," he said.

Alpine Canada president Max Gartner said in a statement Wednesday that it's too premature to discuss a new investigation.

"In December 2012, an interim report was released by the Swiss police as part of their investigation into the accident in Grindelwald," Gartner said. "Alpine Canada is disappointed that a final report, which it would like to have the opportunity to thoroughly review, has still not been published. With respect to calls for a separate, independent investigation, we continue to await the publication of the final Swiss police report and look forward to reviewing the investigation’s findings."

The skier's family has established the Nik Zoricic Foundation to raise funds for young skiers and awareness around safety issues. They'll hold the NZ Dawn 'til Dusk Ski Challenge at Craigleith Ski Club on Saturday, a day before the anniversary of Nik's death.

Canada's skicross team, meanwhile, unveiled new race suits this season that pay tribute to Zoricic and his unique sense of style. The Descente suits feature race pants that look a pair of jeans to commemorate the time in 2009 when Zoricic wore blue jeans during a World Cup race.

The Grindelwald course didn't host World Cup races this season. Organizers said it was for commercial reasons, with changes to FIS's marketing of World Cups prompting the decision.

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