July 26, 2011
Jeret "Speedy" Peterson had the kind of smile that you couldn't help but return.
He'd flash that grin, and you found yourself, without even considering why, smiling back at him.
Polite, accommodating, effusive and funny, Speedy seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve. A three-time Olympian, the aerial skier had talent, good looks, success and personality to spare.
It seemed impossible that such a bright light would know anything about the dark torment of depression.
But he did.
Seventeen months after his greatest professional triumph — an Olympic silver medal — the Boise native who lived and trained in Park City lost his battle with a disease that has haunted him most of his adult life. In an isolated section of Lamb's Canyon on Monday night, police said he called 911 and then took his own life with a single gunshot.
"Depression is an interesting beast," he told me about a month before the Vancouver Winter Olympics. "It really is. It's something that is very misunderstood, and it creeps up on you slowly."
Unlike a broken arm or physical ailment, it is harder to see, harder to understand, harder to heal.
"It's one day you're like, 'Holy cow! I'm depressed'," said Peterson, who was studying business at Westminster at the time of his death. "Figuring out what works has been very difficult. Figuring out how to fix it has been very difficult."
He took time away from the sport he loved twice hoping to heal his broken heart.
When he landed the trick that had come to define his career — the Hurricane — in Vancouver, it looked like he'd finally succeeded in banishing those demons. He had not landed the five twists and three flips in competition since he set a world record (which still stands) at Deer Valley in 2007, and attempting to do it in the Torino games had cost him a medal.
"It shows people I can do things that they say I can't," he said choking back emotion. "To me, it's dumping a lot of things from my past. It allows me to tell myself that it's OK. It's not so much about the medal; it's not about the podium. It's about everything that I've been able to overcome. It's what it represents to me. Do I think it's awesome? You bet."
Before going to the Olympic Games in Vancouver, he was candid about his mistakes — which included being sent home early from the 2006 Olympics after engaging in a drunken brawl.
"This (Olympics) is very special for me," he said while signing autographs during a break in his training. "So many things in my life have been very difficult and challenging. For me to be able to overcome those and still end up on top, really means a lot to me. I do give myself a pat on the back for being able to realize my dreams one more time. And it's something that hasn't really come easily."
Counseling, medication and vitamins, he said, helped him regain control of his life.
"I've had all kinds of difficulties," said Peterson, who also lost an older sister to a drunken driver when he was five. "I've had depression; I've had suicide attempts; I had a roommate of mine commit suicide in front of me. I've had trouble with alcohol that I've gotten taken care of. I am really happy with how I am, and where I am these days."
That trouble, it seemed, resurfaced recently when he was arrested on Friday for speeding and driving while intoxicated in Hailey, Idaho. Three days later he was dead at 29.
When I heard about his death, I thought of all of our conversations in the last decade, but most recently about his struggles with alcohol and depression. I couldn't help but think of his victories, of the moments when he got the better of his demons — and the elements — and of what he told me he'd take away from the sport win or lose in Vancouver.
"I'm young," he said. "I'm having fun, and that's what really counts to me. When I'm not having fun, that's when I'll hang up the skis. But no matter what, I really can walk away from this sport knowing that I caused people to push the envelope, that I helped push that progression."