Jeret Peterson: 1981 – 2011
Posted By MJ On July 27, 2011 @ 9:27 am In Cover Stories,Features,Sports
The whole thing takes just 2.9 seconds. In that tiny window of time, between his skis leaving the ramp and touching down again, skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson somehow flings his body through a complicated eight-part series of twists and flips that make up his signature trick. It requires such extraordinary precision, timing, and strength that no other skier has dared try it in competition. The difficulty lies not only in the combination but in the sequence: one twist on the first backflip, three twists on the second, and one more on the final backflip — while flying as high as a five-story building. One slight miscalculation could spell disaster.
Yet it all began as a joke. While Peterson was practicing jumps on a water ramp one day in 2004, coach Darcy Downs suggested he add a third twist to his second flip — and he somehow pulled it off. When Peterson later landed it on snow, his coaches rushed over and asked, “What did it feel like?”
“Like being stuck in the middle of a hurricane,” Peterson answered. The name stuck. If all goes as he hopes, the Hurricane will win him gold in the Vancouver Olympics, where the 28-year-old Boise native is one of the favorites in freestyle aerials.
But outside those three seconds in the air, little in Peterson’s life has gone according to plan. In fact, in the four years since the Turin games, where he was a medal contender and media star, his life away from skiing spun almost fatally out of control. The story of how he brought himself back, found his feet, and stuck the landing has never been fully told — until now.
Back in 2006, Speedy Peterson blew into Turin full of bravado, and the press ate it up. It seemed like a gold medal would barely be enough for the tobacco-spitting skier from Idaho with the backward trucker hat, diamond-studded ears, and cocky grin. Peterson — then the reigning aerials World Cup champion — wanted money, fame, and glory. “I wanted to be it,” he recalls.
The night of the Olympic freestyle aerials final in Sauze d’Oulx, the hill was lit up like a landing strip. All eyes focused on the takeoff ramp as the top 12 men soared into the night sky one after the other for judges who rated them on takeoff, form, and landing, multiplied by the degree of difficulty of their tricks.
Every U.S. flag waved for Peterson, the only American to make the final. After the first jump, he was in third place, within striking distance. Just one more to go, and the pressure was on: Nail the Hurricane, and he’d be a hero. Fail, and his high-risk decision would forever be second-guessed. He could opt for an easier trick, but easy had never made sense to Peterson. There was no question what he’d throw.
The snow was getting colder, and thus faster. Adrenaline pumping, Peterson started a few inches too high up the hill. That tiny mistake had huge consequences: He rocketed off the kicker, and his momentum caused him to over-rotate the last flip. Amazingly, he landed on his skis — but his hand grazed the ground. Goodbye, gold medal. Hello, seventh place.
“I got spanked,” he says.
That night, he and his friends headed to a mountain bar. “You choked!” a drunk American taunted. Peterson glared — and then someone handed him his first drink in six months. A few hours later, Peterson and his childhood pal Mason Fuller were roaming around with full bottles of wine in each hand. “We were partying ski-team style,” Fuller remembers.
As the sun started to rise, Peterson and Fuller were stumbling around in the streets. When a police officer asked the drunk men for their passports, Peterson refused and started to walk away, but Fuller reached out to stop him. Suddenly Peterson spun around and — bam! — clocked his friend in the mouth, chipping his front teeth. He was immediately remorseful, and no charges were filed, but the U.S. Olympic Committee jumped on his case. Within 24 hours he was on a plane home.
“I acted inappropriately,” Peterson says now. But his post-game outburst reflected deeper trouble than a disappointing result. “Nobody asked, ‘Why is this happening?’ ”
Even a podium finish would not have erased what Peterson had been through. He was haunted by a turbulent childhood, and by a gruesome scene he’d witnessed just months before Turin, a memory that he still cannot shake. “Things have been going wrong for me since the day I was born,” he says matter-of-factly.
The son of a nurse and a hospital lab technician, Peterson was the youngest of three kids; his teenage half-sister, Kim, was the one who chose the name Jeret. Around the age of 18 months, Peterson was allegedly sexually abused by a family member — or at least that’s what he’s always been told, by his mom and a string of counselors. “Whether it did or didn’t happen, I don’t know,” he says now. “But it might as well have.”
The family soon disintegrated, as his parents divorced in a messy battle that drove his father away. When Peterson was five, Kim was killed in a car wreck a few weeks shy of her high school graduation. With an absent father and a working mother, Peterson became the ADD hellion who set fire to the yard, sold firecrackers in school, and, later, ripped through town on a scooter as loud as a chain saw. In elementary school, he discovered skiing and learned to burn off his energy by hammering through mogul fields at nearby Bogus Basin and throwing spins till he was dizzy.
At 11, Peterson heard about a summer aerials camp in Lake Placid, New York, but he was too young to attend, so his mom forged his age on the application. When it came time to ski off the practice ramp and into the pool, he bolted to the front of the line in his uncle’s snowmobile helmet and checkered life jacket, then launched. He tried to stay vertical but accidentally threw half a backflip and crashed into the water headfirst. He bobbed up, giddy with excitement.
Peterson raced up the stairs again and slithered past the other campers; the coaches nicknamed him “Speedy,” for Speed Racer. By the end of the week, he had crammed in 200 jumps and was officially qualified to compete. “I felt more comfortable being upside down in the air than right side up with my feet on the ground,” he says.
For a while, the damage in his life was eclipsed by his stunning athletic performances. By 16, Peterson had made it onto the U.S. team, and by 17 he was junior national champion in aerials. A fourth-place finish at the last Olympic qualifier made him an alternate for the 2002 Salt Lake City games. It was almost too easy. “I felt guilty,” Peterson says, “because I beat out a lot of older guys on the team that I really respected.”
One day later, his teammate Emily Cook crashed and broke both feet — which meant Peterson got the last Olympic slot. “I was extremely happy for myself,” he says, “but knowing that the only reason I got to compete was because my good friend got her dreams crushed was very difficult.” When Emily called to relay the news, they both cried.
On the night of the aerials final, Peterson placed ninth, a satisfying result for a 20-year-old rookie. Earlier, he had smiled for the NBC cameras and held up his gloves, on which he’d written: Hi Emily.
After Salt Lake City, he asked for the summer off, thinking he’d try college for a while. “I just wanted to be a kid,” he says. But in what would become a pattern for him, he found it difficult to navigate life outside skiing. At the University of Utah, all he did was party and “find chicks to do my homework.” The depression he had been diagnosed with as a teenager resurfaced, and medication couldn’t lift him. He resumed training, but even skiing wasn’t enough to keep him motivated. He became bored with his practice jumps, and it showed. Team officials demoted him and told him that if he wanted to return, he’d have to prove his commitment.
He responded to the challenge from his coaches, and made it back onto the elite team. And on January 12, 2003, he earned his first podium: second place in a World Cup at Mount Tremblant, Quebec. For the next two years, he appeared to be on track to contend for a medal in Turin. But inside he was deeply insecure. “I was extremely unconfident off the hill,” he recalls. “I could tell you 10 million things I was bad at.”
Then came 2005, the year that changed everything. “It was the biggest year of highs and lows in my life,” he says. It started out well: In January, in an amazing three-week run across 12 time zones, Peterson won aerials events in New York, British Columbia, and China. At the end of the season, he claimed the most coveted prize short of an Olympic gold medal — the crystal globe awarded to the overall World Cup aerials champ.
In the off-season, Peterson poured his energy into a new house in Park City, Utah, that he was renovating. It was his first home, and he wanted it to be perfect; he even created a pond with a waterfall in the yard. He lived with two Olympic bobsledders and Trey Fernald, a ski bum with a drug-laced past. Fernald had grown up with one of Peterson’s teammates, and Peterson let him stay, rent-free. All he had to do was help with landscaping — and stay clean. “If I see any drugs, you’re out,” Peterson warned.
As housemates, Peterson and Fernald grew close, going to concerts, steelhead fishing in Idaho, barbecuing in the backyard. Every once in a while, they’d drive out to a shooting range where Fernald would take out his prized Walther PPK pistol and fire it at some blown-out TVs and a rusty fridge. It was James Bond’s gun of choice. “That’s why Trey loved it,” Peterson says.
Late one night, June 25, a party got going at Peterson’s house. About 20 revelers showed up, mostly women. Peterson dialed Fernald at work: “Dude! There are so many girls here. Bring your boys over and we’ll have a good time.”
Around 3 am, Peterson says, Fernald stumbled in, wasted. He spotted one of Peterson’s friends, a pretty young woman, and went over to her. Suddenly his hands were around the girl’s neck. She struggled, scared. “Hey!” Peterson said, running over. “What the fuck, man?”
Fernald looked at him, his pupils so dilated that no color was visible. “You’re high,” Peterson said.
Fernald gritted his teeth. “No, I’m not.”
“Really?” Peterson said. “Let’s go to the police station and I’ll have you drug-tested.”
Fernald went downstairs to grab his shoes. Minutes later, Peterson followed him and pulled aside a tapestry that served as a room divider. Then he froze. Fernald was lying in bed, the silver pistol in his right hand. Peterson watched him put it to his head.
“I looked him straight in the eyes, he looked me square in the eyes — then pulled the trigger,” Peterson says. “Didn’t say a word. I don’t even remember hearing the gun.”
The bullet dislodged Fernald’s right eyeball so it hung down his right cheek. His left eye was still open, looking at Peterson. He gurgled as he tried to breathe. “The only thing I could think of was to put his eye in to try to make it look normal,” Peterson recalls.
He never slept in that house again.
After Fernald’s suicide, Peterson dove into the bottle. “I was definitely an alcoholic,” he says. When he drank, he got angry. “I’d get in fights with anybody or anything — a policeman, a sidewalk, a planter, I didn’t care. I was about as safe as a three-year-old with a gun,” he says. “I never had any repercussions. Nobody stopped me, and I couldn’t stop myself. Nobody took control of this situation that I was clearly not in control of.”
At times, his luck was so good that he had little need to take control. In August, a few weeks after Fernald took his life, Peterson and some buddies went to Las Vegas for a friend’s birthday. When he and his posse arrived at the Mirage, he headed straight for the blackjack table. He began playing $5 hands, which soon became $25 hands, then $100 hands — real money for a guy who worked at Home Depot (as it then did for many Olympic athletes, the home-improvement chain gave Peterson flexible hours so he could train).
Soon he was up nearly $4,000 and getting his drink on. He handed $500 chips to each of his friends and said, “If you guys win, keep the money. If you lose, it doesn’t matter because it’s the casino’s anyway.” Everyone got 19, 20, or 21, and the dealer busted.
Emboldened by his luck, Peterson started betting $500 per hand, then $1,000. Drinking heavily, he grew careless. He’d foolishly hit on 19 when the dealer had 20 — but then he’d get a two. “I couldn’t lose to save my life,” he says. When he reached $30,000 Peterson was invited into the high-limit room. Now he was drinking Bud Light from a glass and, playing the maximum $5,000 a hand, raking in the chips. He was up 80 grand and getting rowdier by the minute, until after several warnings the guys got kicked out for cursing and shouting.
Next door at Treasure Island, they strode up to the high-roller room, and right away Peterson won the first four hands. Now he was up $100,000. Jay Kealey, his best friend from Boise, was on his right. Nate Roberts, the 2005 moguls world champion, was on his left. Neither could believe what was happening. Peterson put $15,000 in chips in front of each and said, “Let’s go!”
“Dude, that’s insane! I’m not playing $5,000 hands of blackjack,” Kealey said.
“Okay, don’t play,” Peterson replied, and turned away. His friends gave in and started playing, pooling their money. And their luck continued. “They called me all freakin’ night,” says Mason Fuller, who grew up with Kealey and Peterson in Boise. When Peterson was up $150,000, Fuller said urgently, “Jay, put him in a headlock and drag his ass outta there. He needs to walk away with this.”
The casino started changing the dealers, changing the cards: “I’m amazed they didn’t change the carpet,” Peterson says. When security came to see if he was counting cards, Peterson couldn’t even add the cards.
Finally, at about 5 am, Peterson announced, “I’m done.” He handed his stacks of chips to the cashier and watched her count out $550,000 in $100 bills. He could hardly comprehend the sum. “That’s more than I could make from aerials in a lifetime,” he says.
Up in the penthouse, the boys were trying to order a high-roller breakfast. Rack of lamb! A 50-pound lobster tail! Wheaties with Michael Jordan on the box! They could get none of those things, but their glee was undiminished. Hanging up the phone, Peterson pulled a stack of hundreds from his pocket and peeled the paper strip off the middle, and they started hurling fistfuls of cash at each other. It was snowing green.
Later, after the last stray Benjamin had been retrieved from the lampshades, Peterson gave Kealey $100,000 and Roberts $225,000 and kept $225,000 for himself. His best friends were stoked. “I’d much rathe change all of our lives than just mine,” Peterson says now.
In September, his hot streak continued as Peterson won another high-stakes event, the first Olympic qualifer in Australia. That was all he needed: He was bound for Turin. He had already landed the Hurricane on snow and was determined to use it to win the gold. He had stopped drinking after Vegas and seemed to have found his groove. But then: the botched jump, the drunken fight, and the humiliating plane ride home.
Back in the States, Peterson immediately set off for Vegas again. But this time, he locked himself in his hotel room and slept for four days. He was embarrassed, exhausted, and distraught.
The more he thought about it, the more he started to realize that skiing was the only thing that kept him focused. “Even if it was just for 10 seconds at a time, my head was clear,” he says. “The only thing I really had control of was my skiing.”
On January 11, 2007, at a World Cup event in Deer Valley, Peterson notched record-setting scores. He finished second in the year-end standings.
But the high didn’t last. “The way Speedy works, he’s on or he’s off,” says his friend and fellow jumper Emily Cook. “He’s kind of two speeds. Before Trey died, he was always full of positive energy. After, he would disappear, get quiet and withdrawn.”
Depressed, bored, and away from the skiing spotlight, he went into free fall. He bought a new condo in Park City, but he kept hitting Vegas, winning and losing thousands at a time. He cut off communication with friends and family. “Depression clouded everything,” he says now. “Everything I tried — medicine, psychology, physical exercise — led me back to square one. It got to the point where I was driving down the freeway and all I wanted to do was jump out of my truck.”
In July, Peterson told his mother straight up, “I’m suicidal.” She tried to get him psychiatric help, but he argued and refused. When he went to the store and didn’t come back for several hours, his worried mom eventually called the cops, who threatened to take him to the hospital in handcuffs. “I was pissed,” Peterson says. “I didn’t want to be put in a loony bin.” His girlfriend of seven months, Tia, ended up driving him to the University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) in Salt Lake City, where he stayed for six days. But the medication the doctors prescribed stripped him of emotion. “I was so flat that I would have done anything just to feel something,” he says.
Two months later, on the night of September 17, 2007, he collected a roll of duct tape, a garden hose, two knives, several bottles of over-the-counter sleeping pills, and some beer and drove to the shooting range where he and Fernald had hung out. He called Tia and said, “I’m miserable and want to die.” She cried, but he couldn’t. “I felt nothing,” he says. “There was no difference between telling her I was going to kill myself and ordering dinner at a drive-through.”
He walked to the back of his brand-new silver Ford F-350 diesel, the one he’d tricked out with DVD screens in the sun visors, and attached the hose to the tailpipe. He fed it through the back window and secured it with cardboard and duct tape. In the front seat, the movie Final Destination was playing. He thought about the searing pain he’d felt after Fernald’s suicide and whether he had the nerve to inflict such anguish on others.
Suddenly, a flashlight and gun appeared. Dazed, Peterson got out with his hands up. A female cop secured his wrists. Peterson looked down: The handcuffs were hot pink.
He spent another week at UNI, while his mother had the unfortunate task of dismantling the hose from the truck and cleaning out the interior. “He had it packed to the hilt with drugs and alcohol,” she says. “The pill bottles were open and thrown all over the floor. You could have opened a small corner market in there.” Frightened, she wondered if anything was going to be able to help her son.
After his suicide attempt, Peterson decided to take a year off from skiing. He went back to Boise, where he started a construction business. His life began to turn around. He was in counseling and learned that his antidepressants weren’t interacting properly with the chemistry of his brain. On his doctor’s advice, he switched to vitamin supplements instead. He felt it was making a huge difference and restored his energy — but his drinking continued unchecked.
In early November 2008, after a Bud Light and tequila bender that began at a Boise State football game, Peterson shuffled into his mom’s house and, while taking off his boots, smashed his foot through a mirror. Blood went everywhere, even the walls. He was so drunk he didn’t care, but when his mother walked in and saw the gory mess, she was horrified.
“He’s gonna kill himself,” she says she remembers thinking. “I lost Kimmy, and now he’s gonna kill himself, either accidentally or on purpose.”
“That look on her face was all it took,” Peterson says. “In that moment, I realized that my actions were not just affecting me. I finally got sick of being a jackass.” He quit drinking that day and has been sober since.
On a sunny Thursday in October, Peterson stands in Times Square, wearing his blue U.S. Ski Team warm-up jacket. His blond hair is brushed upward, and crow’s-feet frame his pale blue eyes.
He is friendly and quick to smile, although he hasn’t exactly had a smooth year. All the money he won in Vegas? Gone. What he didn’t give to his friends, he lost to taxes and a poorly timed investment in a Canyons ski resort penthouse. When the market soured, he ended up losing the condo, as well as his townhouse and his truck; on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008, Peterson filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Idaho.
But this time, he didn’t let his problems overwhelm him. Without a car, he decided to ride his bicycle up the long steep hill to the practice ramp every day, turning his commute into a summer training tool. When he lost his properties, he asked for help with housing, and a U.S. Ski Team supporter is letting him live rent-free in her 7,000-square-foot house just down the road from Deer Valley.
“I’ve never felt happier,” he says. “The last year has been a huge breakthrough. My maturity level has gone up. I don’t do things that make me feel guilty now.” Personally, he says, “I’m not out of the woods, but I’m so close.”
His stomach still sinks every day when he passes the exit to the house where he lived with Fernald, but he’s off all medications. While that can carry risks, he’s trained himself to call his therapist when symptoms of depression return. “I’ve learned to talk about how I feel, and it has completely changed my life.”
Last season, he returned to the aerials team and captured his seventh career win at a World Cup event in Lake Placid — despite skiing only one day during his year off. Even more remarkably, he finished third overall in the 2009 year end World Cup standings.
“I’ve had extreme highs and lows,” he says in a moment of reflection. “I’ve had abuse. I had a roommate commit suicide in front of me. I had an alcohol problem. But I’ve also had an amazing life with lots of great adventures. I’ve gone to the Olympics twice. I have an amazing family. I’ve learned that just because one thing happens to you, it doesn’t create your entire life.”
Vancouver will mark Peterson’s final Olympics. He will attempt to land one last Hurricane — and hopefully this time, he’ll stick it. The question now is not necessarily what will happen in those 2.9 seconds, but whether America’s finest aerialist can finally master life with both feet on the ground.
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Men’s Journal
Article printed from Men's Journal: http://archive.mensjournal.com
URL to article: http://archive.mensjournal.com/jeret-peterson
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