Jeret “Speedy” Peterson
December 12, 1981 – July 25, 2011
In the year following an Olympiad, most Americans barely give a passing thought to the antics of the athletes they revered as heroes mere months before. The men and women who inflamed patriotic passions become footnotes, forgotten until the next Olympic cycle kicks up and we start to glance closer at the radar of world sport.
Sure, we’ll hear about one of the athletes anointed by mainstream corporations for their marketability. But most of the athletes who can call themselves Olympians, from the guy who finishes last to the podium finishers, train and toil and compete in obscurity for years until that three-week window opens and we dig deep into the recesses of our brains to recall names only slightly familiar.
But sometimes there is a jolt that awakens us fans, that reawakens our senses to the events of the recent past. Unfortunately, more often than not, it takes a tragedy to make that happen.
Such a jolt hit the winter sports community on Monday night when 29-year-old freestyle aerials skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson was found dead beside his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Less than 18 months ago, Peterson was electrifying the world en route to the silver medal in Vancouver. While it was Belarus’ Alexei Grishin who won his nation’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in the men’s aerials final, the enduring memory of that competition was Peterson unleashing a new trick that would become his signature move.
In his second launch of two attempts, Speedy threw caution to the wind and flew with his Hurricane – a back full-triple full-full that sees him rotate five times in the air through his three flips. Flying through the encroaching dusk, Peterson whirled and spun through the night with crisp execution of each rotation. Unfortunately, though, a less-than-perfect landing docked him enough points that he had to settle for second place, just 1.2 points behind Grishin’s winning score.
Since his podium performance on February 25, 2010, finally a medalist in his third Olympiad, Peterson was one of those that faded away while those like Lindsey Vonn and Apolo Anton Ohno nabbed up the limited advertising dollars available to American medalists from corporations looking for the face of a product.
Of course, Peterson was never the type that fits the mold of the corporate shill. Outspoken, heart on his sleeve, his was a hard-luck life in which perseverance and dedication to his aerial pursuits kept in check — but only for a time — the demons of his past. Sexually abused as a child and having lost his sister to a drunk driver when she was but 5 years old, Peterson’s youth in Idaho was one with few advantages and many trials and tribulations.
Peterson first joined the American team in 1999 as a 17-year-old, becoming national junior champion in aerials that year and claiming bronze each of the next two years at the world junior championships. His efforts earned him a trip to his first Olympics as a 20-year-old, competing in his adopted home of Salt Lake City. He would finish ninth that year, his inexperience against senior competition apparent, but it only seemed to strengthen Speedy’s determination to utilize his talents to their full potential.
He started working on his Hurricane move in 2004, unveiling it to high acclaim in 2005 to earn the 2005 FIS Aerials World Cup season title in advance of the 2006 Olympics in Torino. In podium position after his first jump, Peterson threw caution to the wind and went for the high-risk, high-reward Hurricane. In the Italian Alps he failed entirely to land the trick, crumbling in a wash of snow to plummet from 3rd to 7th in the final standings. It was later brought to light that he was jumping with the fresh memory of a departed friend who had committed suicide just months before the Olympics, shooting himself in front of Peterson. The trauma still lingering in his mind, it was inevitable that Peterson would be unable to bring his best game to Italy.
But the big story at the time was the drunken altercation at a post-competition celebration that led the U.S. delegation to send him home from the Olympic Village. At the time U.S. Olympic official Jim McCarthy said, “This type of conduct is irresponsible and will not be tolerated. Like every athlete, Jeret had an opportunity to represent himself, his sport, and his country in a positive manner. He chose to do otherwise, and because of his unacceptable actions, his Olympic experience is ending early.” He would return to the United States, recovering his equilibrium enough to win the 2006 U.S. Championships in Killington, Vermont a month after the Olympics.
After that, it seemed as though Peterson had faded away already. Falling completely off the radar, the skier came back for one last shot at Olympic glory in 2010 and managed to qualify for his third Olympics. Once he got there, redemption was in the cards. After years of battling through alcoholism and depression and the psychiatric demons of his past, he managed that one moment of lucid, concrete success on the world stage he had sought from adolescence.
Unfortunately, though, that moment was as fleeting as most Olympic success stories are. Without the spotlight shining on him any further, Peterson drifted further back into the dark troubles of his life. Arrested for driving under the influence in Idaho three days earlier, his 30th birthday creeping up on him and the end of his athletic career yielding no clarity for the rest of his life, Peterson was tossed back into the shadows of his troubled past.
The demons finally caught up with him on Monday, and sports fans everywhere lose one of the greatest competitive spirits it has seen in recent memory. Unable and unwilling to go at anything but top gear as he approached a launch point on a mountainside, Peterson will be missed by the entire winter sports community as much for his affability as for his athletic ability.
What will be the enduring lesson of the early passing of Jeret “Speedy” Peterson? Unfortunately individual sports, as much as we can wrap them up in the guise of team, are solitary pursuits. And when the support that comes with being a team member is vacuous and fleeting at best, it is harder for a community that cares to recognize and seek treatment for those of their peers that cannot recognize those problems in themselves.
May Speedy rest in peace, no longer forced to confront that which drove him from the precipice. And may future athletes learn from his example, how to compete with 110 percent of their heart beyond their known ability — and how not to deal with emotional problems. If even one athlete learns that there are options beyond a bullet for depression and a troubled past, Speedy’s death will have not come completely in vain…