By Eddie Pells, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Jan. 1, 2011
He knew he had been lucky and wanted to earn his next chunk of money the "right" way. So, Jeret "Speedy" Peterson took the $550,000 he won during one, unbelievable night at the blackjack table and sank it into real estate.
That was in 2006, right before the bubble burst.
Sometime in 2007, Peterson filed for bankruptcy.
"It's totally backward, right?" Peterson said.
By now, though, Peterson is used to backward - used to what it's like to sometimes get rewarded for things he didn't really earn and be penalized for things where his heart was in the right place.
Next month, he will be on his third U.S. Olympic freestyle skiing team, and the big issue that used to follow him - will he or won't he throw his famous five-twist, three-flip Hurricane jump on the aerials course? - now seems kind of trivial.
Because even though freestyle skiing is what gives Peterson his pathway to occasional fame and more-than-occassional success, there is more to this 28-year-old than the Hurricane.
"I've been in counseling the majority of my life," he said. "I suffer from depression pretty bad. I've always had issues to tackle. I've been in and out of the hospital for suicide attempts. It's something I've had to deal with on a daily basis. Luckily, I've had the friends and coaches and family who allow me to keep on track and not slip."
His 5-year-old sister was killed by a drunken driver when he was young. Peterson was also a victim of sexual abuse. They're not topics he wants to delve into much in public, but he does say that despite his difficult childhood, growing up was not all bad.
"I was too busy to be depressed back then," he said.
His mom is a nurse and Peterson said he "always had this built-in responsibility to help other people." In 2005, he was living with a friend, trying to help him through some rough times.
A few months before the Olympics, his roommate committed suicide while Peterson was in the room.
"That not something I'll ever get over," he said. "You just try to learn how to deal with it."
Part of dealing with it involved giving up skiing for a year and moving back to his roots - to Idaho - where he worked in construction. With the help of friends, including the first person who sponsored him in skiing, he learned drywall, tile, hardwood and electrical. He got a general contractor's license. Worked hard. Built things.
"I just think he needed, as Bill Marolt always said, a little timeout," U.S. aerials coach Matt Christensen said, invoking the words of the CEO of the U.S. ski team. "He's not the first athlete who's needed that. I think I'm pretty good about reading where athletes are and how they need to be. He needed some time away from me. I knew it."
Peterson said the construction work was an "instant-gratification thing for me," where he walked into work, went at it hard, then walked away, able to see exactly what his labors had produced at the end of the day.
It's far different feedback than what he gets out of his sport, where there is the occasional dose of instant gratification from landing a perfect jump or winning a gold medal, but very little of that in the thousands of small steps it takes to get to that point.
In aerials, skiers have to land in water for hundreds of training jumps before they can even think about moving to snow and the cold, hard ground. The practice resumes there. Coaches estimate a skier has to practice a single jump between 500 and 1,000 times before he or she can try it in competition.
There are injuries: Blown knees. Concussions. Shattered feet.
Peterson was an alternate for the 2002 team, but found himself with a starting spot in Park City when teammate Emily Cook broke and dislocated bones in both her feet during training less than a month before the games. Another reward Peterson didn't exactly "earn" all by himself.
But that's life in a niche sport that provides a decent living for those in the upper echelon, but, realistically, gets one big day in the spotlight - every four years at the Olympics.
And when that day is over - well, it can be hard to re-up, especially when you've been through what Peterson has.
"I knew I still loved skiing, I knew I wanted to go for another Olympics," Peterson said. "But I needed to get out of it. I wanted to just be a regular guy. I took time off because I wasn't having fun, wasn't being a positive contributor to my team, and that's not good for anybody."
Peterson's experience in Turin was not a good one.
He hyped his attempt at the Hurricane and turned that night on the mountain into an "Event," but didn't nail the landing. He finished seventh, but said he had no regrets, that "I came to do the Hurricane, and I did the Hurricane" - a justifiable stance in a sport whose trendsetters aren't always seen as such until years after the gold medals have been awarded.
But that story line got overshadowed by the fight he got into outside a bar later that night in the Italian Alps. He got arrested, got sent home early by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which had already endured embarrassments involving Bode Miller and feuding speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick.
Peterson said not a day has passed when he doesn't hear something about his ouster from Italy. He doesn't want to downplay it, says he wishes he could have those moments back. But to act like that's the worst jam he's ever been in - well, that wouldn't be true either.
"Where I was going was unhealthy and not productive and I was unhappy," he said. "I was struggling with depression, struggling with alcoholism. I had a lot of post-traumatic stress that I wasn't dealing with in the correct way."
He sips on soda instead of whiskey now, and feels like he's going in a better direction.
He will make no grand promises about whether he'll throw the Hurricane in Vancouver come February. But having wrapped up his Olympic spot at trials last month, he can focus more on practicing the Hurricane without having to worry as much about the more dependable four-twist jump that most of his competition will bring to the games.
"He's a little more cautious and he's not going to go in there as a full-blown cowboy," Christensen said. "Some of that comes with maturity. But you can't change his personality. If he's fired up and things are good, nothing's stopping him from doing it."
When the Olympics are over, Peterson will move on, and he's sure the gold medal he wins or doesn't win won't define him.
That's not to say he doesn't still dream of hitting it big.
"I want to start my own company, be a venture capitalist, make a lot of money and use that money to support kids," he said. "Kids make me happy. I want to take all the hard work and determination and dedication I have for the sport and carry it over to somewhere where I can really make a difference."