Freestyle aerialist Jeret Peterson was a rock star on skis. After battling depression, his return to earth had a tragic end.
Jan. 3, 2014
PARK CITY, Utah -- 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 plenty familiar with the mountains around Park City, less than a half-hour drive from Salt Lake City. It's where he grew up as an athlete, honed his skills as a devil-may-care freestyle aerialist, trained for three Olympic Games. It's where he experienced so much joy and where he endured so much merciless pain.
On that summer night in 2011, there surely wasn't much to see. Hunters head out that way. Sometimes hikers, too, but not usually so late. It probably took about 15 minutes to finally 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 on the other end.
"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."
YOUNG AND FULL OF LIFE
Before the world took to calling him Speedy, he was just Jeret, the youngest of three kids growing up in Boise, Idaho, a tightly wound ball of energy and mischief. "A little sweetheart, a real tender spirit," says his mother, Linda Peterson.
Jeret Peterson, on the right as a 3-year-old with his sister Erika, dealt with sexual abuse and the death of another sibling while growing up. (Family Photo)
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.
"I remember he kept asking me, 'Where did Sissy go? She's not in her room?' " his mother recalled.
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 large snowmobile helmet and a black-and-white-checkered life jacket and ran circles around the other young skiers. He reminded the coaches of the "Speed Racer" cartoon character, and they started calling him Speedy.
"And it just stuck," said Kris "Fuzz" Feddersen, a three-time Olympian who helped run the camp.
Peterson fell in love with aerials, the Winter Olympics' original adventure sport, in which competitors launch themselves off a ramp, going head over skis, twisting and flipping for judges. As he began competing seriously, everyone associated with the sport seemed to fall in love with Peterson, too. Part of his appeal was talent -- he was fearless and looked like a natural flying through 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.
As a teenager, Peterson began training in Park City. He made the U.S. team at age 16, was a junior national champ at 17 and 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, and with luck on his side, his pile of chips kept growing. The next several hours were a blur of alcohol and cards, and soon he was betting $5,000 a hand. 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 night's 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, you know? That was Speedy: a whirlwind, a hurricane."
DISAPPOINTMENT IN ITALY
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 can be 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 the competitive task in front of them, 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. Detling first met Peterson in 2002 and says she needed to refer him to others better equipped to handle mental health issues.
"Most people might get through one, maybe two traumatic events in their life," she 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, though, 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, 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.
Peterson moved out of the house but could never shake the memory. He used alcohol as an escape, which compounded problems.
"He couldn't sleep at night," his mother said. "He said every time he closed his eyes, that's all he saw."
In the years that followed Turin, Peterson twice attempted to take his own life, and he was twice hospitalized. His mother said he had both depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosed.
Few families aren't impacted in some way by dark clouds of depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, and according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 Americans suffers from depression.
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 whether to make 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," Fedderson 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 didn't like the way the medicine numbed his emotions, and he apparently wasn't clear what he was allowed to use. His mother says Peterson was under the impression that the medications that would treat his illnesses -- including Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin and Zoloft -- were banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Linda, a nurse in Boise, says her son felt at times he had to choose between his passion and prescription. While most of those aren't allowed during competition, athletes with a diagnosed medical need can apply for a therapeutic use exemption, according to a USADA spokesperson.
Peterson appeared to finally hit bottom late in 2008 when bad investments forced him to file for bankruptcy. He realized something needed to 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," his mother said, "in a happy spot."
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 the Vancouver Games in 2010. Peterson honed his signature trick and signed some endorsement deals that paid only if he brought home gold from the Olympics. 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.
"He was an all-on-the-line guy," said Worthington, a veteran of two Winter Games. "It's all or nothing. 'Can care less if I get hurt, if I get paralyzed, if I die.' It didn't matter at that point. I was thinking, 'I sure hope he wins. I don't know where his life will go if he doesn't.' "
THE TRICK OF HIS LIFE, AND GLORY
Peterson often told people that 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 ever 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.
Aerials is the kind of sport that draws thrill-seekers, those who thirst for risk, shrug off danger -- and maybe aren't scared of dying. Going downhill on skis isn't enough. Going fast isn't enough. They need that exhilarating mix of flare and peril.
Even in that environment, no one else ever thought to try the Hurricane. It was so different, so thrilling, so Speedy.
"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.
"You can tell he premeditated his post-Olympic plan," Worthington said. "He was gonna win, write a book, do some 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."
After the first of two jumps, Peterson was in fifth place and knew he needed to land the Hurricane if he was 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. So many people felt they'd spent years flying and flipping and twisting with Peterson.
"Jeret had this personality where everyone was his friend," said Kealey, who knew Peterson since the two were 12. "Everybody he talked to believed they were his best friend."
The judges study technical execution, not just difficulty, and Peterson's gold medal hopes were doomed by a slight knee bend on impact. His score was later surpassed by Alexei Grishin of Belarus, and Peterson 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 was also in tears. She didn't need a gold or silver or any type of medal. She just hoped that 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?' "
THEN ... OVERSHADOWED
The days that followed Peterson's fantastic 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, snowboaders Shaun White and Seth Wescott.
"He'd call: 'You got me on the "Today" show? Leno? Letterman?' " said Fedderson, who helped Peterson navigate the post-Olympic waters. "It was kind of disappointing. Those shows wanted the gold medalists."
It's a fine line for Olympians. The medal represents so much, symbolizes years of work and sacrifices. But it's not a golden ticket, especially in the niche sports that seem to disappear once the Olympic rings are put in storage.
"A lot of athletes assume a medal is going to change their life. I think Speedy fell into that category somewhat," Detling said. "He was such an amazing athlete who really did some wonderful things. But a medal is not enough. It doesn't change everything the way a lot of people think that it will."
As the weeks and months passed, Peterson was trying to figure out what his post-Olympic life would be. 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, first and last. Suddenly, that was gone.
"It's like, you are done," said Worthington, who competed in the 1992 and '94 Games. "Endorsements are over, no one's paying you, no one's giving you insurance, No one's doing anything."
A lot of the organizations that govern Olympic sports in the United States have programs in place to help athletes transition into new fields, into school, into new lives. They begin preparing them long before the Olympics begin, but every athlete faces the same question after the Closing Ceremonies: If I'm no longer an athlete, then who exactly am I?
"For a lot of people, it's not necessarily depression, but it's certainly a letdown -- a post-Olympic letdown," Detling said. "It does mimic the symptoms of depression. I cannot tell you a single athlete who hasn't experienced that to some degree."
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 back 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 DWI 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."
'I'M IN SO MUCH PAIN'
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 the DWI 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, his voice again cracking, "and I want the police to come get the body."
Peterson was always the last to forgive himself, and he was suddenly lost in the tunnel. Again, it was all or nothing.
Officers raced down the narrow road. They 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. He was done flipping, finished flying, through fighting.
He left a note, the closest he'd give to an explanation.
"He wrote to me, 'Mom, I'm in so much pain, I can't take it anymore,' " Linda said.
She 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."
Peterson's legacy in the sport is secure. The scoring system has changed, and his high score will likely never be equaled. He was the first to land the Hurricane, challenging the sport to grow, pushing the limits of possibility.
His silver medal is safe, too, 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," she said. "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."
Jeret Peterson's family and friends established the Speedy Foundation in honor of the Olympic silver medalist. The foundation strives to raise awareness and encourages people to discuss mental illness and suicide more openly. Idaho, Peterson’s home state, 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.”