By Bill Pennington, New York Times Feb. 9, 2010
At the 2006 Turin Olympics, there was no avoiding the spectacle that was Jeret Peterson, the American freestyle aerialist known as Speedy.
He wore large, shiny earrings off the snow and a gleaming, oversize belt buckle on it. His effervescent personality fit nicely with the stories he told, like the time he parlayed $5,000 he earned working at Home Depot into $200,000 at a Las Vegas blackjack table.
Jay Leno and Katie Couric were among the interviewers lined up before the Olympics to laugh at every one of Speedy’s well-delivered tales.
Peterson, 24 at the time, was no fake; he was a true gold medal favorite. He had a dangerous jump, the Hurricane, that few were willing to try, and he promised to attempt it regardless of the circumstances.
“I’m going out with the Hurricane,” he said at the time. “I’ll probably finish first or last. But I’m doing it.”
After the Olympic aerials qualifying round in Italy, Peterson was third. A properly executed and reasonably safe jump in the finals that night could have still yielded the gold. Instead, Peterson kept his word. Everything about the launch and execution of the Hurricane was nearly perfect — five twists and three flips — with Peterson soaring 55 feet into the night sky. He landed on his skis. But ever-so-slightly off balance, he touched his right hand to the snow to steady himself.
The aerials judges came down hard on Peterson for the imperfect landing. He finished seventh.
Peterson took the setback well during interviews afterward. He said he was proud to have challenged himself with the hardest of choices, and added that life was about “going all out.”
Many of Peterson’s family members and a few friends from his Idaho hometown were with him that night in the tiny village of Sauze d’Oulx, and they headed to a bar where they were joined by several other representatives of the United States ski team.
Several hours into this gathering, according to the police, Peterson punched and fought with his best friend, Mason Fuller, whom he had known since high school. The next day, the United States ski team — already under fire for not curbing the late-night hours Bode Miller had been keeping — publicly rebuked Peterson and asked him to leave the Olympic Village. Peterson complied.
“After I got home, a tremendous number of people wrote me e-mails telling me I was a disgrace,” Peterson said in an interview last year. “It was pretty clear what people thought of me.”
Peterson lost many of the endorsements and sponsorships that had sustained him financially. By 2007, he had quit his sport and gone back to Idaho, where he worked in construction. Pounding nails and pushing wheelbarrows day after day, he had plenty of time to reconstruct the last few years of his life. Peterson decided that more than his final jump at the Turin Olympics had been off balance. He had indeed been living life by “going all out.” And look where it landed him.
He quit drinking alcohol and came to grips with other demons, like the effects of witnessing a good friend commit suicide. He found a way to put the 2006 Olympic experience, on and off snow, into perspective and sought the forgiveness of his friends, family, coaches and teammates.
Last season, he started competing in aerials again. He has been inconsistent this winter, but he has won some competitions, including the recent United States Olympic trials. He will be an Olympic medal contender again.
“I lost an awful lot for getting in a bar fight,” Peterson said last year, seated in a clubhouse lodge next to the aerial jumps in Lake Placid, N.Y. “But you pay for and you learn from your mistakes. I miss the money that it’s cost me to this day, but I’m a different person now and you couldn’t pay me $10 million to go back to being the person I was in 2006.”
He got his nickname at a training camp in Lake Placid when he was 11 because he liked to cut the lift lines so he could get in more jumps, and because his coaches thought the precocious, frisky 5-foot-9 Peterson reminded them of the cartoon character Speed Racer. But Peterson could fearlessly jump, flip and twist. Sure, he landed on his head sometimes, but he got up and tried again — often within minutes.
“You can’t let the bumps and bruises affect you,” he said before the 2002 Olympics. “You’re toast if you do.”
Peterson was 20 when he finished a surprising ninth at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, and he was a world champion by 2005. He was a news media darling and a great interview subject, bubbling and amusing. But he had his dark moments. He would talk about his sister, Kim, killed by a drunken driver in 1987. In 2005, he told Sports Illustrated that he had been molested as a child growing up in Boise, though he would not say by whom.
In the summer of 2005, Peterson invited a friend of his, Trevor Fernald, to stay with him at an apartment in Park City, Utah, where the United States ski team has an aerials training facility. Peterson knew Fernald had recently been struggling with alcohol and drug problems, and on the afternoon of June 26, Peterson doubled back to the apartment to check on him. When Peterson walked through the door, Fernald raised a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
“One minute my buddy is there looking at me, and the next minute I’m trying to put his eyeball back in his head,” Peterson said, telling the story last year with a blank expression. “It was horrible, but I talked to a lot of people who helped me. Still, I was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood and I felt I should be able to tough it out. So after a few months, I figured I was over it. I now know I wasn’t.
“I was left with a lot of unresolved issues — guilt, depression. I covered it up with a lot of alcohol. Even after the Italian Olympics, I wasn’t right, and I decided I had to get away to get my mind straight.”
The solitude and simplicity of life in Idaho helped the healing. He did not touch his ski boots for a year, and he quietly chose sobriety.
“I didn’t announce it, didn’t go to rehab, and I don’t even remember the date of my last drink,” he said. “I know it’s years now. I just realized that alcohol and me don’t mix, so I said goodbye to an old friend. And without that coping mechanism, I was able to deal with the real hurt and pain.”
In time, he also decided to make a comeback, with the 2010 Olympics as the motivation.
“Salt Lake was an Olympic highlight and the Italian Olympics were a lowlight, so I need one more,” Peterson said. “I learned a lot from my mistakes and I owned up to them. No one who was there the night of the fight in Italy is mad at me. Mason is still my best friend. At one point, somebody said to me, ‘Dude, it was a bar fight, let’s move on.’ But it was important because it did make me see what I had to change.”
One thing that has not changed is his determination to perform the Hurricane. It may be the key to winning an Olympic medal.
He has landed the trick in three of five World Cup competitions this season, and according to the United States aerials coach, Matt Christensen, has been regularly practicing it since Jan. 3. Christensen added that Peterson’s training jumps had so far been better than his competition jumps.
“The weather may dictate whether I can do the Hurricane,” Peterson said. The jump, still not common in competition, is so named because performing it makes Peterson feel as if he is in the middle of a hurricane.
“If on the day of our competition, the wind is coming off the Pacific Ocean, it might be a little dicey for me to try it,” Peterson continued, “but I’ll probably decide the night before the competition and stick to that decision. I’m not going back to the Winter Olympics to do something predictable or easy. I’m going back to do something special — something people can remember me for.”