Jeret Peterson’s life inside the Hurricane
Jeret “Speedy” Peterson is telling the story about the time he won $550,000 playing blackjack in Las Vegas. He started with $5 hands like any schlemiel and by the end of a particularly drunken night walked out of the casino with so much cash that he and his friends frolicked in it back at the hotel like a pile of autumn leaves.
He laughs at this now. Four years later, Peterson is bankrupt. He gave $325,000 of the Vegas booty to the two friends with him that night, then lost the rest via bad real estate investments. Gone are his motorcycles and truck and the other luxuries not generally afforded an Olympic athlete.
“Now, I have a bicycle,” Peterson said. “No, I take that back. I have two bicycles. One is 12 years old.”
Peterson long ago grew accustomed to unimaginable highs and devastating lows. A life of scorn and alcoholism and sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts, of the deepest sadness imaginable, sent him searching for that place where all of it goes away, where he breathes air not poisoned by life.
“Fifty-five feet in the air, upside down and backward, I’m more comfortable than I am standing upright,” he said.
Peterson, 28, is a freestyle aerialist for the United States. On Thursday night, in the men’s aerials finals, he will attempt a trick called the Hurricane, which entails three flips, five spins and can result in a million unsavory outcomes. Nobody else in the world can hit it. If Peterson sticks the landing, he will, in all likelihood, win the gold medal.
To land any aerials jump, let alone one as difficult as the Hurricane, takes surgical precision. Peterson will stand atop the hill at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver, British Columbia, and repeat to himself his usual pre-jump spiel: clear mind, tight body, shaped like a pencil and not a banana. He will look at the windsocks on both sides of the knoll below the ramp and adjust his position on the hill accordingly. Then he’ll let go.
By the time Peterson reaches the nadir of the hill, he is traveling around 45 mph. He lifts his arms for control and launches off a ramp angled at about 70 degrees. Peterson lifts his legs like he’s kicking a soccer ball with both feet and starts the craziest three seconds in any sport.
During his first flip, Peterson does one full twist. He sees nothing but the sky for the first three-quarters of the twist, lost in his moment. The second flip is the showpiece. Peterson somehow crams three twists into one backward somersault, a marvel of physics in which he starts with his arms out and brings them in to gain speed and finish the twists. Almost immediately, Peterson juts his arms out again to slow his momentum and ready for the landing. Coaches yell on the last flip, which includes a final twist. “Reach,” if they want him to lunge forward, or “stretch,” if they need him to slow down, or “pull,” if they prefer him to speed up. Or, best of all, “You’re perfect.”
On the most optimal jumps, Peterson essentially falls out of a fifth-story window and lands on his feet. His skis touch down on the 36-degree hill of powder beneath, the brunt of the landing tingling nerves from head to toe. Plenty don’t go nearly as well. The worst crashes involve flying skis and body parts, broken bones and dreams, the beauty of the human form offset by the gore of it landing in a crumbled heap.
“That’s why people love watching aerials,” Peterson said. “They want to see crashes.”
Speedy Peterson sat in the parking lot at a gun range in Park City, Utah, in 2007 with knives, pills, booze, a garden hose and duct tape. He was determined to kill himself using some sort of combination of them. He called his girlfriend to say goodbye.
“I was never scared at all,” he said. “I was totally OK killing myself. And that’s when it really scares you. It makes you feel crazy. All I really wanted to do was stop hurting.”
Pain chases Peterson. He lost his half-sister in a drunk-driving accident when he was 5. A family member sexually abused him, according to Peterson’s mom, though he said, “I’m not really sure what the truth is about that.” The confusion made it that much worse.
So Peterson sought an outlet early on, and Bogus Basin Ski Resort provided it. As an after-school activity, Peterson went to the bunny slope and took a ski lesson. The instructor went down the hill backward to talk with the students. Peterson figured that meant he was supposed to turn around, too, so he did. The instructors were impressed.
Peterson soon joined the freestyle team at Bogus Basin, and a family friend sent him to aerials camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., at 11. On his first jump off a ramp into a pool below, Peterson lost his balance, flipped backward and landed on his head. The instructors chuckled. Already they had nicknamed Peterson “Speed Racer,” because his oversized helmet and checkered jacket made him look like the cartoon character. They encouraged Speedy to do the whole flip next time, and he did. A career was born.
By 12, Peterson was training in Park City. He was a phenom, a 5-foot-8 bundle of twisting madness, his ability to spin in the air near unparalleled in the sport. He made the United States national team at 16 and the Olympic team at 20, aerials only part of his thrill seeking. Peterson loved to skydive. He bought a bullet bike that he took up to 154 mph on a Park City road. He womanized. He drank. Peterson lived to excess.
His friends did, too. When Trey Fernald, an old pal, moved into his house, Peterson gave him one rule: no drugs. On June 26, 2005, Peterson said, Fernald came home with pupils the size of a full moon and a temper to match. Peterson accused him of using drugs. Fernald retreated to his room and pulled out a pistol. Peterson went to confront him. Fernald stuck the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Peterson can’t forget the sight of Fernald’s right eyeball dangling from his head.
Eight months later, he went to Italy for the Turin Games as the favorite in aerials, his body tuned, his mind frazzled. Peterson saved the Hurricane for his final jump. He was in third place. Hit it and he would win a medal, probably gold. Peterson biffed the landing and bombed out in seventh place. That night, at a bar, somebody yelled at him: “You choked.” Peterson drank and drank, cavorting about, wine bottle in hand and sorrows bathed.
Later that morning, walking around with his friend Mason Fuller, Peterson was stopped by a cop and asked for ID. When he tried walking away, Fuller grabbed Peterson by the arm. Peterson responded by punching him in the face.
“When I drank, I’d fight a curb,” Peterson said. “I’d fight a building.”
And he’d fight a childhood friend. Peterson apologized immediately. The United States Olympic Committee kicked him out of Turin anyway. “It was awful for everyone,” said Emily Cook, his aerials teammate and close friend.
Peterson, a regular on NBC’s “Today” show and smiling star of an NBC promotional campaign, spiraled when he returned home. One night after heavy drinking, he called his mother and told her he didn’t want to live. She brought him to a hospital in Utah, which gave him antidepressants that compounded the misery.
He was discharged – too early, he said – and found himself in the parking lot that night, ready to do what less than two years earlier he had seen Fernald do. Then, Peterson said, he saw a light. And a gun. It was a police officer. Peterson would have to live one more day.
In early January, at the aerials training course in Park City, the temperature dipped below zero. Peterson stood atop the hill shivering. He was wearing an utterly ridiculous sweater for a fashion shoot with the New York Times Magazine. It looked like the designer had knit together the remnants of those extra-long scarves magicians pull from their mouths.
“This thing is awful,” Peterson said.
He obliged anyway. Four years away from the embarrassment of Turin salvaged Peterson’s reputation. He moved back to Idaho soon after the cop knocked on his window. He needed time away from aerials, from the sort of life he led; time to experience what it was like to be a real person.
Peterson did contracting work. Remodeling. Drywall. And tile. Lots of tile. He hated laying tile but needed the money. He was seeing a new doctor in Tacoma, Wash., at the Amen Clinic, which uses brain-scanning software to determine a course of vitamin-and-supplement treatment for patients with depression. Some physicians believe it’s quackery. Peterson says it saved him.
He complements his natural medicine with the ADD drug Adderall and has spent hundreds of hours in therapy. Peterson said he stopped drinking in late 2008, by which time he had rejoined the freestyle team. His time away helped him realize that skiing hadn’t caused his depression. His depression made him dislike skiing.
In his first jump back, Peterson tried a full-triple full – two flips, four twists and the first two parts of the Hurricane. He landed flat on his back in the water. It knocked the wind out of him. Coaches, bowled over by Peterson’s audacity, gasped for air. “I was trying to laugh,” Peterson said, “but I couldn’t breathe.”
Speedy was back. Only he was different. Actually … balanced. He could go high into the sky still, and nothing countered that feeling on the ground. Never will Peterson find peace – “I’m not 100 percent where I want to be,” he said, “and I probably won’t be for a long time” – but relative equilibrium is a good start.
The limelight gravitated toward Peterson ever so slowly again. He appeared on “The Biggest Loser.” His friends called him from Wal-Mart, saying they saw a profile of him on the TVs in the store. “Today” is back for more. Peterson said he isn’t concerned with any overexposure because, unlike last time, he’s equipped better to handle it.
“When it comes down to it,” he said, “I strap pieces of wood and plastic on my feet, and I go off a pile of snow.”
And it’s there, at the Vancouver Games, that Peterson can find what for all these years he sought. He lived through the eye of a hurricane. Now he’s ready to show the world his version.