Graham Watanabe of the USA reacts after the second snowboard cross qualifying run at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, Feb. 15, 2010.

SALT LAKE CITY — As Graham Watanabe takes part in the eighth annual National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk on Saturday, he'll carry the spirit of the late Jeret "Speedy" Peterson.

Peterson was Watanabe's teammate during the 2010 Vancouver Games, during which Peterson won a silver medal for freestyle skiing.

On top of the physical rigors of training for world-class aerial skiing competitions, Peterson battled depression and alcohol abuse. On July 25, 2011, he committed suicide in Lamb's Canyon. He was 29 years old.

Watanabe said Peterson inspired him as a fellow athlete, but also as a young man who had endured sexual abuse and the death of his 18-year-old half-sister in a drunken driving accident.

"What he struggled through reminds us of the importance of understanding mental illness and not being afraid of mental illness," said Watanabe, honorary chairman of Utah's NAMIWalks event set for Saturday morning at Liberty Park. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m., with the start of the walks beginning at 10 a.m.

NAMIWalks were conducted in more than 80 communities nationwide in 2011. It is the largest "anti-stigma effort" in Utah and the nation, according to organizers.

"By speaking out about mental illness, I hope to raise as much support and funds as possible," Watanabe said. "The money will allow NAMI to help the many Utahns who live with mental illness and their families and loved ones."

Family members, co-workers and companies can organize teams of walkers. Registration for the event is free, but participants are encouraged to collect donations. Donations also can be made at on the NAMIWalks website.

Watanabe, 30, has retired from competition and is attending Westminster College, majoring in physics.

Comment on this story

Aside from his friendship with Peterson, Watanabe said he learned more about mental illness after finding out about his mother's occasional struggles with depression.

Because mental illness affects many people, Watanabe said he feels a responsibility to support efforts such as NAMIWalks.

Mental illness "can be difficult to manage, but it is treatable," he said.

Watanabe also serves on the board of The Speedy (Peterson) Foundation, which aims to enhance the public's understanding of mental illness and fight its stigma through education research and advocacy. A key goal of the foundation is suicide prevention.

The foundation is co-promoting NAMIWalks.