By Aimee Berg
When Jeret "Speedy" Peterson took flight, you didn't have to know a full-triple-full-full from a triple-venti-mocha-latte to know you were witnessing something spectacular. For the past six years, Peterson was the only aerials skier in the world who could nail a quintuple-twisting triple backflip. Unlike other quints, Peterson ripped out three twists on his second flip, a most improbable sequence.
The maneuver was so outlandish that he dubbed it the Hurricane, and when he hit it, he hit it big; in 2007, he set a world-record score with it. Three years later, in Vancouver, the Hurricane vaulted Peterson from fifth place to an Olympic silver medal, forcing the eventual champion to throw a trick that he had never tried in competition.
But we may never see the Hurricane again. On a damp July night in Lambs Canyon, Utah, about 15 miles northwest of Park City, Peterson took his life with a gunshot to the head and left a gaping hole in the heart of the ski world. Peterson was 29.
For all the control and precision that Peterson summoned to execute his 2.9-second Hurricane, his life on the ground was a different story. His tumultuous past included alcoholism, depression, and bankruptcy. He lost his half-sister in a car crash. He was told he was sexually abused as a toddler. He witnessed a friend's violent suicide.
When Peterson spoke openly of these things, he could rivet a roomful of strangers twice his age, sucking them in like cowboys around a campfire, hanging on his every word. More often, he kept his problems to himself and preferred to entertain and empower his friends with humor and generosity. When Peterson bought his first house, in Park City, he took in a teammate's troubled friend and let him live there rent-free. Another time, when a gambling spree in Vegas put him up $550,000, he let two of his best buddies pocket more than half the winnings.
Speedy had a way of making everyone around him feel better. He encouraged his teammates and his rivals on the hill. Four years after Emily Cook made the 2002 Olympic team, then broke both feet and ceded her Olympic berth to Peterson, she was standing at the start of a 2006 U.S. Olympic trial in Steamboat. It was New Year's Eve.
"I was scared," Cook said. "I had a terrible training. I was a total mess. Speedy yells from the top of the hill--and you don't really do that when someone's in the gate--'Emily! Calm down! You can do this! Smile! Relax!' I was like, 'OK, you're right.' I had two great jumps and qualified for my next Olympic team. After the event, he skied down and reminded me that after four years of waiting, we'd walk into the Opening Ceremony together--which we did."
But no one dared follow Speedy into the Hurricane. It was too hard and too high-risk. Peterson was the rare athlete who not only pushed the sport forward but--to everyone's amazement--grew bored practicing the sport’s most difficult trick.
"If he can go up and do that any time he wants, then where's the next step?" said Ryan St. Onge, the 2009 aerials world champion. "Where's the next challenge for him?"
The reason Peterson picked aerials, he said, was that he felt most comfortable in the air. Had he taken a different path, he might have been an X Games star like his childhood friend Tanner Hall. The two lived together as teenagers, and Hall has said--more than once, "We're damn lucky he decided to be an aerialist and chase a gold medal. I think if he stayed freeriding, we'd all be starving."
Or Peterson could have chosen moguls like his other childhood pal Nate Roberts, the 2005 world champion, who has been jabbing at the FIS to allow double backflips in the bumps.
Instead, Peterson blazed his own trail and, like most innovators, bucked the confinement of the ski team. In 2002, after making his Olympic debut at age 20, Peterson requested time off. He got it, but it meant being demoted to the "C" team. When he returned, he quickly started winning World Cups. In 2005, he won the overall aerials title, and eventually, team officials learned that when Peterson asked for a break, it was best to give him time and space to sort things out.
This year, Peterson was on one of those breaks. He hadn't competed internationally since Vancouver and it was unclear whether he would return to the sport. Still, his life was on an upward trajectory. He had enrolled in college and made the Dean's list, but then came a DUI charge in his home state of Idaho. Days later, he was gone.
His warm grin will live on in photos, and his crazy antics will remain in his friends' memories, but skiing may never see another Hurricane.