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Zoricic death forces skiers to confront their nightmares

Canadian National Ski Cross team member Nik Zoricic of Toronto, Ont. poses for a photo following a media event at Cypress Mountain, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Sept. 15, 2009.

Jonathan Hayward/CP

The nature of the high performance athlete is to do everything possible to win, says Canadian alpine skier Kelly VanderBeek.

That won't change because of the accidental death of ski cross racer Nik Zoricic in competition last weekend, she says. VanderBeek is planning to be on a World Cup podium as soon as next year.

But how victory is accomplished and why it's important are questions that need to be asked, she says.

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"It's difficult to take the competitiveness out of a competition, you're never going to do that. The athletes are out there and do anything they can to win, in any sport, and that isn't going to change," says VanderBeek, who is coming back from a reconstruction of her left knee after suffering a torn posterior collateral knee ligament, medial collateral ligament and fracturing the tibial platelet in a training accident in December, 2009.

"The parameters in which they're trying to be as fast as they can – that's what has to change," she said in an interview.

She said Zoricic's death has given athletes pause to consider what they are doing. She wants sport to be a safer place and has worked with concussion expert Dr. Willem Meeuwisse at the University of Calgary to research head injuries and protective equipment.

VanderBeek said Zoricic's death hasn't been the tipping point to quit ski racing one way or another: "Everybody has their own decisions to make. Obviously any person doing sport, their worst nightmare is a head injury or death.

"Of the possibilities that are the most catastrophic, those two are the highest in stress for athletes and their partners ... Not only in Alpine skiing but in sport across every community right now – NFL, NHL, ski cross, alpine, aerials ... everything across the board. Questions are being raised regarding safety, which leads me to believe that our whole community – whether X-Games or Olympic sport – has to take a step back and ask where we're going as a society and as a sporting community. What is our final goal? What is our purpose here?

"I have an absolute passion and love for skiing. But this is a price I don't believe any person should have to pay in any sporting arena, whether it's car racing or ski racing. Death is just too high a cost for sport."

Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada said downhill ski racing – where World Cup skiers can go at 130 to 150 km/h as opposed to approximately 100 km/h in ski cross – "is the ultimate extreme sport." He said ski cross is no more dangerous than other sports.

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The lethal side of downhill almost claimed Brian Stemmle, former national team alpine skier who is now a sport broadcaster. Stemmle crashed on Kitzbuehel's infamous Hahnenkamm course in 1989, almost ending his career and his life. The video of the crash, in which his ski tip caught safety netting and he was almost torn apart by the forces in the accident, is listed on as the worst ski accident ever. He was kept in a medically induced coma for several days by doctors, concerned the pain would be too intense if he woke up.

Yet Stemmle returned from massive internal injuries, a broken pelvis and infection to win a gold medal at the 1990 Winter Pan American Games in Argentina. Stemmle skied on the World Cup circuit for another nine seasons until retiring in 1999.

Cam Bailey, the founder and past president of the Canadian ski cross team, said some skiers could adapt to the dangers and fear inherent in downhill very easily. "One part of that sport that is very clear is that if there is one element of hesitation or fear, you cannot be competitive," Bailey said.

"You may be very accomplished, but any hesitation in the slightest will be a real problem. Any skier at that level, at the World Cup, they've overcome those fears."

He said it's rare to see an athlete return after an accident with any hesitation in his work.

Yet, Stemmle said that for skiers who have never had an injury, seeing Nik's accident will make them realize they're not invincible. "I hope it doesn't deter people from the sport, but people going out skiing for the first time say, 'I hope I don't get hurt.' They don't do that in other sports."

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Stemmle had to overcome the trauma of the 1989 accident.

"I look at it now and I don't know why I did [come back]" he said. He later cited that his age and becoming a father may have softened his perspective over time.

"People always told us [Canadians]that we were crazy. Maybe I was. I don't know if I'd have the courage to do it now.

"But I was a young, proud guy and I didn't want to be defeated by anything – much less a mountain. And there were Austrians and Swiss guys who I'm sure didn't ski as well as I did."

Nevertheless, if someone doesn't come back to alpine skiing or to ski cross, Stemmle wouldn't be critical of the decision.

"I'd never call someone a wimp for the decision he [or she]made. It's not easy. I remember standing in the starting gate at Kitzbuehel in 1994. The skier in front of me looked down, took off his skis and quit on the spot. I was thinking the same thing.

"But I didn't. It was extremely important for me, but for some it's not worth the risk. I respect that."

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Sports reporter

James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More

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