By WILL GRAVES
2014-02-17 06:42 AM
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) -- Emily Cook still carries a picture of longtime U.S. aerials teammate Jeret "Speedy" Peterson in her pocket. Nearly three years after the charismatic but troubled skier's suicide, Peterson's pioneering spirit looms over his sport.
"He'll never be forgotten," Cook said.
It would be nearly impossible.
From his trademark "Hurricane" trick -- three flips and five twists packed into a couple of harrowing seconds of flight -- to his leading-man looks, Peterson was a guiding light in a discipline that often struggles to separate itself from the growing crowd of extreme sports in the Olympic program.
"To see someone buck the system and mix it up like that did a lot for the sport," said Mike Hanley, a friend of Peterson's and a former aerialist.
Peterson's crowning achievement came in Vancouver four years ago, when he landed the Hurricane in the finals to earn a silver medal. His ongoing battle with depression cost him his life, but versions of the jump he pioneered have now become more commonplace.
Not that everyone is on board. Heading into Monday's competition, Australian aerialist David Morris, who finished 13th in Vancouver, has a version of the three-flip, five-twister in his back pocket if he needs it. He'd just rather not need it. Morris called the trick "terrifying."
"If it is necessary I can do it, but I hope it is not," he said.
If anyone can land it cleanly on the slush at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, he'll likely find himself on the medal stand. Here's a look at five jumpers who could see their flag soar above all others when it's said and done.
ALEXEI GRISHIN: Hard to go against a guy who has his face on a stamp. Grishin won the first-ever Winter Games gold for Belarus when he triumphed in Vancouver to add to the bronze he captured in Turin in 2006. The 34-year-old took some extended time off after the last Vancouver Games but is rounding into form. He finished third at the final Olympic tuneup event last month.
ANTON KUSHNIR: The 29-year-old was expected to contend in Vancouver and Turin but failed to come close to the podium either time. Like his fellow countryman Grishin, Kushnir is surging. He won a tune-up event in Deer Valley, Utah, last month. Kushnir and Grishin give Belarus a chance at a rare sweep in aerials after teammate Alla Tsuper won the women's competition last week. The U.S. is the only country to win men's and women's aerials in the same games, doing it in 1998 with Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone.
LIU ZHONGQING: The world's top-ranked aerialist has been the closest thing to a sure bet over the last four years. The 28-year-old from China won bronze in Vancouver, but the pressure will be on. When teammate Xu Mengtao earned bronze in the women's competition, the first question she faced after the first Olympic medal of her career was why none of the four Chinese women in the finals won gold.
QI GUANGPU: The reigning world champion hasn't been quite as sharp this winter. The 23-year-old from China finished an ugly 19th at an event in Canada last month but rebounded to win at Lake Placid in the last contest before Sochi.
TRAVIS GERRITS: The 22-year-old Canadian might be the western hemisphere's best bet to break China and Belarus' grip on the top of the podium. His one victory this season is impressive, an upset at the Bird's Nest in Beijing in December when he edged three Chinese for the top spot.