The last flight of Speedy Peterson

Remembering the spirit, success of a troubled Olympian

THE WASHINGTON POSTJanuary 8, 2014 

Jeret Peterson grew up in Boise, graduated from Timberline High in 2000 and competed in three Olympics. He earned a silver medal in men’s freestyle skiing aerials at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

BELA SZANDELSZKY — Associated Press file

  • In Speedy's memory: A foundation and suicide hotline

    Jeret Peterson's family and friends have established the Speedy Foundation, which strives to raise awareness and encourages people to discuss mental illness and suicide more openly. Idaho has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, 49 percent higher than the national average. The foundation raised money to establish Idaho's first suicide hotline, and Peterson's family and friends hope that's only the beginning.

    "Sport has tremendous outreach," said Mike Ruzek, chair of the foundation's board. "People look up to athletes, and those athletes have a platform to reach people - Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson. Sports has opened doors and provided an entry point to discuss larger social issues. Well, Speedy is helping us talk about something important and the time has really come for the de-stigmatization of mental illness."

    For more information, visit thespeedyfoundation.org

    Mental illness by the numbers

    • 1 in 4: Adults who suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

    • 1 in 10: Americans who suffer from depression.

    • 36,000: Suicides in the U.S. each year (more than car accident deaths).

    — Washington Post

— It was dark when Jeret Peterson tried to navigate his way through the tunnel. He turned off Interstate 80 and guided his silver Dodge Dakota through the desolate and quiet area known as Lambs Canyon. The mountains loomed large and the tall pines crested over the narrow road, but at around 8:30 at night, it's doubtful he could have seen much beyond whatever passed in front of the truck's headlights.

For nearly four miles, he zipped along the canyon's curves, eager to put everything behind him. Peterson, 29 at the time, was familiar with the mountains around Park City, less than a half-hour drive from Salt Lake City. It's where he honed his skills as a devil-may-care freestyle aerialist and trained for three Olympic Games. It's where he experienced so much joy and where he endured merciless pain.

On that summer night in 2011, it probably took about 15 minutes to reach the dirt parking lot, where a locked gate prevents vehicles from going any farther. That's where Peterson parked his truck and pulled out his phone. A woman's voice answered.

"Nine-one-one, what's the address of your emergency?" she said.

"I'm at the parking lot at the top of Lambs Canyon."

"Okay, what's going on there?"

"I'm going to kill myself."

•••

Before the world took to calling him Speedy, he was just Jeret, the youngest of three kids growing up in Boise, a tightly wound ball of energy and mischief. "A little sweetheart, a real tender spirit," said his mother, Linda Peterson.

His parents divorced when he was young, and his father was barely in his life. Still, Peterson could endlessly entertain himself. He ordered firecrackers from a catalogue and sold them to classmates for a profit. He took the screen off a second-floor window and invited friends to leap onto the trampoline below. Peterson was always the first to introduce himself to the new kid in school.

"If there were any kids getting picked on, if there was something that was unfair, Jeret was the first to step up," said Jay Kealey, a friend since childhood. "He was not one to hold his tongue."

Peterson was so excitable and friendly, but his smile often seemed to mask the scars. "Things have been going wrong for me since the day I was born," he once told Men's Journal magazine. Peterson was sexually abused when he was younger, though as an adult, he'd say he had no memory of the abuse. And when he was 5, his older sister Kim was killed by a drunk driver just a few weeks before her high school graduation.

Linda put her son in counseling and was constantly looking for healthy outlets. That's part of the reason she sent him across the country with a neighbor to attend a freestyle skiing camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Peterson was at least a year younger than the 12-year age requirement, but Linda lied on the application and put him on a plane.

There, he immediately caught the eye of coaches. Smaller than the others, he wore a snowmobile helmet, a black-and-white-checkered life jacket and ran circles around the other young skiers. He reminded coaches of the "Speed Racer" cartoon character, and they started calling him Speedy.

"And it just stuck," said Kris "Fuzz" Feddersen, an Olympian who helped run the camp.

As Peterson began competing seriously, everyone associated with the sport seemed to fall in love with Peterson. Part of his appeal was talent - he was fearless and looked like a natural in the air - but it was mostly his personality.

He was the one who always played jokes, cheered up teammates, befriended strangers and would do anything for a laugh. He was the one who'd wander off at the airport while others were checking their luggage, and swathe himself in the plastic wrap intended for suitcases. "He was such a goofball all the time," said his good friend, Emily Cook, a two-time Olympic aerialist.

Peterson, training in Park City, made the U.S. team at age 16, was a junior national champ at 17 and -after graduating from Timberline High in Boise in 2000 - competed in the 2002 Olympics at 21. His profile really rose in the four years leading into the 2006 Olympics. And to outside observers, he seemed to be having more fun than ever - on and off the mountain.

His friends recount a story they feel perfectly encapsulates Peterson. Not long before the Turin Games, he went to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend's birthday. He started by playing $5 hands of blackjack. The next several hours were a blur of alcohol and cards, and soon he was betting $5,000. He didn't stop until it was nearly dawn, and he was up $550,000. The risk never scared him. In typical Speedy fashion, he split the haul with his buddies. It was that all-or-nothing, hyperactive energy that his friends had grown accustomed to.

"He was probably in my house 100 times - and he never stayed more than five minutes," Feddersen said. "But it was an action-packed five minutes. ... That was Speedy: a whirlwind, a hurricane."

•••

Olympic athletes are unique in that for most, their sport is in the spotlight only once every four years, so the weight they carry into competition can feel magnified. A small stumble can feel like four years of training has been for naught and an entire nation has been let down. Mentally and emotionally, it's a delicate balancing act.

"We're in a rough lifestyle," said Steven Holcomb, an Olympic bobsledder who battled depression and survived a suicide attempt. "It's kind of an antisocial lifestyle. I spend four to five months a year traveling. It's different. You have to make a lot of sacrifices along the way, which kind of leads to that kind of depression."

Next month, the United States will send more than 200 athletes to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. They all juggle a variety of issues and pressures, and the very best have an incredible ability to block out extraneous stressors and focus on their competitive task, says Nicole Detling, a U.S. Ski and Snowboard team psychologist.

In the air, Peterson was bulletproof and beautiful. It was when he was on the ground that problems seemed to pop up.

"Most people might get through one, maybe two traumatic events in their life," Detling said. "Not every time you turn a corner. Speedy just had so many demons he was fighting on a consistent basis."

Peterson entered the Turin Games as a gold medal favorite, but gambled and decided to go big, attempting the most difficult trick the Olympics had seen. He landed off-balance and settled for seventh place. That night at a bar with friends, all the pressure, disappointment and expectations came uncorked. The sun was nearly up when officers stopped Peterson and Mason Fuller, a childhood friend from Boise, and asked to see their passports. Words were exchanged, and Peterson started to walk away. Fuller tried to stop him, only to be met by a drunken punch to the face from his friend.

The incident made headlines. Peterson was sent home early, watched his sponsors disappear and was distraught over letting down his large network of supporters. Plus, it was becoming increasingly clear that personal trauma still gnawed at Peterson, keeping him awake at night and consuming his thoughts during the day.

Just a few weeks before his fabled Vegas trip, Peterson witnessed something that would haunt him the rest of his life.

He shared a Park City home with three friends, one named Trey Fernald. Late one night in 2005, Fernald came home, and appeared to be intoxicated. Peterson had warned him about using drugs, and the two exchanged words. When Peterson followed him downstairs, he watched as his friend put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

In the years that followed Turin, Peterson twice attempted to take his own life, and he was twice hospitalized. His mother said he had depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosed.

Peterson's relationship with his sport was complicated, and he stayed away from the mountain for months at a time. He worked construction in Boise while he weighed another Olympic run.

"He'd go in waves - 'I'm not into it, I'm out of here' - that wave that we all rode with Speedy," Feddersen said.

Peterson withdrew from family and friends and seemed to spend as much time in Las Vegas as Boise or Park City. He was in and out of therapy and on and off prescriptions.

Peterson appeared finally to hit bottom late in 2008, when bad investments forced him to file for bankruptcy. He realized he needed a change, so that November, Peterson stopped drinking and began to gravitate back toward his lone place of comfort: the mountain.

"It would keep his mind occupied," said Linda, a nurse in Boise.

Peterson solicited the help of Trace Worthington, his intermittent coach and a former Olympic aerialist himself, and the two discussed what he needed to do to prepare for Vancouver in 2010. Peterson honed his signature trick and signed endorsement deals that paid only if he brought home gold. It was a high bar, but it was also the type of pressure he relished. Just like at blackjack, Peterson was eager to put all his chips on the table.

•••

Peterson often told people he felt more comfortable upside-down five stories in the air than standing right-side-up with feet firmly on the ground. So it's no wonder that he invented the biggest, baddest, most dangerous and hard-to-believe trick. He called it the Hurricane, and it helped him post the highest score the sport has seen.

It all unfolds in less than three seconds, so you have to pay close attention. Peterson shoots off the ramp and does a full twist on the first backflip. He rolls into a second flip but somehow manages to spin into three twists, just as he reaches his peak height - about 55 feet off the ground. As he descends, there's one final backflip with one final twist. Ideally, he lands on his feet.

"I think he felt safer when he was pushing the envelope," said Detling, the psychologist. "That was his personality. He loves that kind of stuff. He craved it."

Peterson was akin to a rock star on skis entering Vancouver. He had the trick, the personal story and the confidence. All that remained was the gold medal, and the stakes couldn't have been higher.

"He was gonna win, write a book, do reality TV, move to L.A. He thought it'd all just blow up and be big. But it all hinged on winning a gold medal,'' Worthington said.

After the first of two jumps, Peterson was in fifth place and knew he needed to land the Hurricane if he were going to win. Three flips and five twists later, he was on solid ground, pumping his hands in the air as he skied toward his tearful, cheering group of friends and teammates. Judges study technical execution, not just difficulty, and Peterson's gold medal hopes were doomed by a slight knee bend on impact. He settled for silver. Many felt the judges failed to fully appreciate Peterson's ingenuity and courage even attempting the Hurricane on such a big stage.

"Of course, you're going to have a little impact," Worthington said. "He just dropped 55 feet out of the sky doing a quintuple twisting triple backflip."

Peterson showed no outward disappointment. He stood on the medals podium with tears streaming down his face. "I know that a lot of people go through a lot of things in their life," he said afterward, "and I just want them to realize they can overcome anything."

His mother also was in tears. She didn't need a gold or silver or any type of medal. She just hoped her son could seize the happiness and somehow let it sustain him forever. "It did go through my mind, 'Good, he can retire, he could get on proper medication, all the pressure's gone,' '' she said. "But I was concerned, too, because it's like, 'Okay, so now this is coming to an end. What's next?' ''

•••

The days that followed Peterson's performance in Vancouver were accompanied by frustration. His silver felt dwarfed by gold medal wins by Americans with higher profiles: skiers Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, snowboarders Shaun White and Seth Wescott.

"He'd call: 'You got me on the "Today" show? Leno? Letterman?' '' said Feddersen, who helped Peterson navigate the post-Olympic waters. "It was kind of disappointing. Those shows wanted gold medalists."

As the weeks and months passed, Peterson was trying to figure out his post-Olympic life. He spent years focused on his sport. He wasn't in school, wasn't doing internships, wasn't networking with future employers. He was an aerialist, and suddenly, that was gone.

"For a lot of people, it's not necessarily depression, but it's certainly a letdown - a post-Olympic letdown," Detling said.

Peterson moved to Los Angeles to knock on doors, but after several months he seemed to come to terms that Hollywood wasn't rolling out the red carpet. He returned home and eventually enrolled in business classes at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

In July 2011, Peterson drove to Idaho and stopped in Sun Valley en route to Boise for a friend's wedding. He was clocked driving three times the speed limit and arrested for driving while intoxicated.

When he finally reached his mom's house in Boise, he didn't mention the arrest, but Linda knew something was amiss. News reports began to surface, and his friends and family started to worry. For them, Peterson was always tiptoeing right along the edge, and they all knew the smallest thing could push him over.

"I thought to myself, 'This is it, this is it,' " Worthington said. "I just knew it wasn't good."

•••

The words quivered as they came out of Peterson's mouth. "I'm going to kill myself," he told the 911 operator.

Just three days had passed since his arrest. The woman didn't understand. The poor cell reception in the canyon didn't help. "Somebody stole your car?" she asked.

"I'm going to kill myself," Peterson repeated, "and I want the police to come get the body."

Officers found the silver truck parked near the gate. Earlier that day, Peterson had purchased a shotgun, and police found shells in the bed of the truck. About 25 feet away they spotted Peterson's body.

Linda drove from Boise to Park City with Peterson's uncle and sifted through the remnants of his life, upset that all the prescription bottles they found in his bathroom cabinet failed to bring him peace. They were hurt by his death, but also a bit relieved.

"All I know is that he's free now," Linda said. "He doesn't have to deal with this any more."

His silver medal is safe, stored at his mother's house. It didn't save Peterson, but it has come to represent something. Linda has never had it cleaned. She doesn't want to scrub away her son's energy.

"He gave it his all the best that he could in every way. I admired him and I respect him, and I love him to pieces. I know that he's whole and complete, and he's free of the horrific monsters that he had to deal with down here."

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