Jeret Peterson's journey shouldn't have ended like this

By Mike Lopresti, USA Today

The picture is 17 months old now, of a man on a wintry night at the Games of Vancouver, teary-eyed in happiness, holding his skis in his left hand and the American flag in his right. One of those photo-ops that makes us love the Olympics.

American Jeret Peterson cheers after landing his second jump in the men's aerial finals to win the silver medal at the Vancouver Game

That is the last time a lot of people noticed Jeret Peterson.

The reporters gathered round the new silver medalist then, to hear his story of revival and salvation. "There's light at the end of the tunnel and mine was silver,'' Peterson said, as the cameras and tape recorders ate it up.

How perfect. Peterson had endured loss and tragedy and trouble and disgrace to get to Feb. 25, 2010. From darkness to the light, a textbook Olympic saga.

But not anymore.

Perhaps you've heard by now how they found his body in a Utah canyon Monday night, a suicide note nearby. Seventeen months after the night he was awarded his freestyle aerials medal and his spirits soared as if they had just flown off the ramp, Peterson apparently drove into the mountains, dialed 911, and then shot himself.

"Today is a sad day,'' U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement. True enough. It is never supposed to happen this way, to the happy athlete we might remember seeing standing on the podium. Not when he is 29.

We grow accustomed to the faces in professional and major college sports, as they compete year after year, but there is something different about Olympians who flitter across the public stage. We share but a brief interlude with many of them. We follow their exploits, in sports we barely recognize, and then they vanish. Here at the opening ceremony, gone by the closing.

If they do well, our lasting image is often of them clinging to medals as if they were their hearts. It is easy to believe they will take that joy and live happily ever after.

Doesn't always happen that way.

I remember Peterson as owner of one of the most dramatic journeys to Vancouver. The child of a broken home whose sister was killed in an auto accident when he was five. A suspected victim of sexual abuse. A young hellion who found an outlet in freestyle skiing, but watched a friend shoot himself not long before the 2006 Olympics in Torino.

He had been a tormented young man in many ways, having had to overcome booze and depression and getting sent home from the 2006 Games after finishing seventh, and after a drunken scuffle with a friend late one night on a Torino street.

But he was a gifted freestyle skier, as if gravity itself could not hold him down, and his "hurricane'' jump of five twists mixed with three somersaults became one of the sport's magic go-for-broke maneuvers. The highs had piled up as quickly as the lows.

In Vancouver, he became one of those epic Olympic tales of redemption that draw us to the television sets. His road ahead would be so much better now. Isn't that how the rest of the story is supposed to go?

Last Friday, he was charged with drunk driving. On Monday, he was found dead.

This is a week for Olympic thoughts. A year from Wednesday, the 2012 Games start in London. Somewhere out there are athletes working under a now-urgent deadline, hoping to know the feeling that Peterson felt on Cypress Mountain.

"For us, it is every hour, every minute, every second,'' gold medal wrestler Henry Cejudo said on a teleconference, looking ahead to London. "It's scary, it's exciting, it's basically a huge emotional roller coaster.''

The day will come when we cheer for them as if we know them. Loudest of all will be the cheers for those who have had to fight their way out of the deepest holes. Someone like Jeret Peterson.

"I'm so happy,'' he said in Vancouver in 2010. "This is the best day of my life.''

It was always supposed to be. He was just not supposed to be dead 17 months later.