TORINO: Freestyle: Hurricane could put USA’s Jeret Peterson at aerials apexTORINO, Italy – U.S. Olympic freestyle team coach Matt Christensen says that if a ‘Hurricane’ hits the aerials venue at Sauze d’Oulx, Italy, there will be one skier left standing when the dust settles and it’s time to award the gold medal.

That skier is Jeret Peterson, and Christensen says the rest of the field will be battling for silver if Peterson nails his signature five-twist jump nicknamed the Hurricane.

‘I don’t gamble’ Christensen said. ‘But if I did, I’d put my money on him. If he jumps the best he can possibly jump, the other people are battling for second place. I really believe that.’

Peterson, 24 and a native of Boise, Idaho, is the reigning World Cup overall champion and one of the few aerialists in the world to land a five-twist jump in competition. The challenge for Peterson at the Olympics will be pulling off the Hurricane under the lights in a nighttime final, under the glare of the Olympic flame, and under the pressure of a field stacked with so many big-time competitors.

Peterson knows the stakes are high, and he’s not planning on holding back.

‘It’s ridiculous how many great competitors are going to be there. I know three people who are planning on doing five twists’ he said. ‘It’s going to be a great competition. And I can tell you right now I’m either going to finish first or last. There’s no in-between. I’m already planning on laying it all out there.’

Peterson’s first task is to make it through the qualifying round Monday at Sauze d’Oulx, the freestyle venue for the Games where Peterson’s teammate Toby Dawson earned a bronze medal in men’s moguls last week.

The finals are scheduled for Thursday night, a scenario Peterson and his teammates trained for by jumping under the lights during an intense pre-Olympic camp in Park City, Utah, just days before leaving for Italy.

And Peterson has had some success at Sauze d’Oulx. He finished seventh in a World Cup event there last season despite battling a case of food poisoning from that old standby of the Italian diet – minestrone soup.

‘I was puking my guts out and got seventh. I was pretty happy’ Peterson said. ‘That’s it for the minestrone.’

Despite those stomach problems, Peterson says he otherwise felt comfortable jumping at the venue.

‘I loved it. It’s beautiful. The site itself feels so much like the water ramps we train on year-round as far as the different curves and the feel of it’ he said. ‘That’s a huge advantage we have over some of the other countries. But when it comes down to it, it’s kind of whoever is on top of their game.’

Peterson is hoping to top the field and earn the gold, but right now he’s not even the top performer on his own team. That honor belongs to Ryan St. Onge, the top American in the World Cup points standings this season. He’ll be at Sauze d’Oulx, as will reigning Olympic silver medalist Joe Pack and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Eric Bergoust, whom Peterson idolized as an aspiring aerialist.

The American team is loaded with Olympic experience. Peterson finished ninth in 2002 at Salt Lake City, Pack is making his second appearance and Bergoust is making his fourth trip to the Games.

Peterson sealed his second Olympic trip back in September after winning the opening event of the World Cup season in Australia. He was one of three U.S. skiers who earned podium finishes during two events that opening weekend.

‘That’s a great way to start off the year because everyone is playing catch-up. But it also has a consequence because it makes everyone else work harder’ Christensen said. ‘Any one of them can take gold. I want them to do the best jumps they can possibly do.’

Peterson may have hit the peak of his career last season by winning the World Cup overall title. But that’s just the latest accomplishment for an athlete who could ski backward at age 7, who knew before he was a teenager that he wanted to win Olympic gold, who made the U.S. Ski Team at age 18 and his first Olympic team at 20. Peterson’s mother, Linda, recalls her son dreaming of Olympic gold when he was 10.

‘I remember we were driving over to Park City (Utah) when he was 10. He drew a picture of himself holding up a gold medal, and I think it said 2002 on it’ she said. ‘I still have that picture. … He has to have a challenge. He’s been that way his whole life.’

Peterson remembers improvising during one of the first jumps of his career during a summer camp that caught the eyes of the coaches and maybe opened their eyes to his potential.

‘I was supposed to be doing upright — I was just going to jump straight up, no flips or anything — and I ended up doing half a backflip on accident so I just went with it’ he said. ‘(My coaches) were like, ‘You made it halfway around so you can do the rest.’ So I went for it and that’s kind of how it started. I was 11 years old. I had no fear. I was trying double backflips into the water.’

Peterson’s camp antics of cutting in line to get more jumps and the camp staff’s belief that he resembled the ‘Speed Racer’ cartoon character also helped earn Peterson his nickname of ‘Speedy.’

Peterson has shown plenty of courage both in the pool as an 11-year-old and in his life off the competition hill for years. This is an athlete who has experienced more than his fair share of emotional pain over the years.

Peterson’s older sister was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver many years ago, and just last summer Peterson watched his roommate commit suicide in the apartment they shared in Park City.

‘It’s not every day that you get a wake-up call like that to … think back on how you’ve been operating’ Peterson said. ‘More than anything, you need to take the good and the bad. … With my buddy killing himself in front of me, there’s actually some good in that. I learned a lot about myself and what it’s going to take to move on with some issues I’ve had in my life.’

Peterson has embraced his success and learned from the setbacks in his life to earn another shot at the ultimate prize in his sport – Olympic gold.

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