July 27, 2011 at 10:57 AM ET
Ever since their first meeting in Torino in 2006, Natalie Morales and freestyle skier Speedy Peterson always had a special connection. Today, Natalie remembers her fun-loving friend, who took his own life Monday.
Natalie first met Speedy when he and his family took Natalie out for an Italian night on the town. His grandma, who he called "grinding Granny," danced until 2 a.m.
"Speedy was always the life of the party," Natalie said. "He liked to have a good time. Torino was clearly his shining moment, in the beginning."
Unfortunately, after a drunken altercation, Speedy was sent home early from those Olympic games.
"It ended sadly for him there, but when I saw him again getting ready for Vancouver, he was back to trying to make the comeback and really training hard and being very focused and driven and trying to change some of his past behavior," Natalie said.
That included a break from drinking, he told TODAY at the time. Interviewing him in Vancouver, Natalie noticed the change. And more than ever, he was concentrating on successfully performing "the hurricane," his signature aerial ski move.
"He was very driven, very focused," she said. "He was intent on making sure he landed the hurricane. That’s really what made the difference in Torino. He attempted it and didn’t land it very cleanly. He went from third to seventh, but when I asked him if he had any regrets ever for trying something so risky when he was in a place to perhaps medal, he said, 'absolutely not. To me the Olympics are about giving it your best. If I didn’t medal, I could take that but I couldn’t take not trying my hardest to do my best, and not giving it 100% effort.' And that was speedy."
The 29-year-old overcame a series of hardships growing up, including the drunk-driving death of his sister when she was only 5, and later witnessing a roommate commit suicide.
"All of that really got to him," Natalie said. "He spoke about battling depression and even had thoughts of suicide. That was always the hardest part for him, just living life. It wasn’t competing. It was living that was hard.
"I'm heartbroken for his whole family. My heart goes out to them, and the prayers of the nation are with them today," she said. "He was so special and had that spark that just touched us all and he was so excited to represent our country, and at the same time, I think there was a lot more that we didn't know about Speedy.
"I hope people just remember him for the great joy he brought all those people who cheered for him at the Olympics."