SALT LAKE CITY — Olympic silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson was found dead in a remote canyon in Utah in what police are calling a suicide.
Peterson, a freestyle skier who patented the so-called “Hurricane” and took second place at the Vancouver Games with it, called 911 before shooting himself, police said. The 29-year-old had been cited for drunken driving Friday in Hailey, Idaho and had pleaded not guilty.
Officers found Peterson late Monday night between Salt Lake City and Park City in Lambs Canyon. Police said a suicide note was found near Peterson’s car; they declined to reveal what it said.
He was one of the most colorful of athletes, and he wore his heart on his sleeve — never more than on Feb. 26, 2010, when he walked off the mountain with tears streaming down his face after taking the silver medal.
“I know that a lot of people go through a lot of things in their life, and I just want them to realize they can overcome anything,” Peterson said that night. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel and mine was silver and I love it.”
It was a poignant closing chapter to a career that, until then, had been filled with success on the smaller stages of his fringe sport but defined in the mainstream by his moment at the Turin Olympics where, after finishing seventh, he was sent home early after a minor scuffle with a buddy in the street.
Over the next months and years, he began telling his story.
In Italy, he was still reeling from the suicide of a friend, who had shot himself in front of Peterson only months before.
Peterson also had problems with alcohol and depression and admitted he had his own thoughts of suicide, all stemming from a childhood in which he was sexually abused and lost his 5-year-old sister to a drunken driver.
“Today is a sad day in our sport,” Bill Marolt, the CEO of the U.S. ski team, said in a statement Tuesday. “Jeret ‘Speedy’ Peterson was a great champion who will be missed and remembered as a positive, innovative force on not only his sport of freestyle aerials, but on the entire U.S. Freestyle Ski Team family and everyone he touched.”
Peterson got his nickname because of the big helmet he wore, one that made him look like Speed Racer of cartoon fame.
But quickly, he became better known for the “Hurricane”— a triple-twisting, double-flipping trick off the snowy ramp that was more difficult than anything anyone else would try.
It was high-risk, high-reward, and Peterson always insisted he’d have it no other way. It was a sight to behold when he landed it and the judges rewarded it. Helped by the huge difficulty marks for the jump, he still holds the two-jump scoring record of 268.70, set at Deer Valley in January 2007.
He had seven wins on the World Cup circuit, was the 2005 World Cup champion and a three-time American champion.
But the stats and the medals were only a fraction of the story.
Born with the heart of a gambler, he took that passion to Las Vegas and won $550,000 playing blackjack one night. But within years, he was virtually broke again after giving some of it away and losing even more in the tanking real estate market.
Trying to decide whether he wanted to stay in the sport after Turin, he took time off and started working in the construction business — a place, he said, where he could see the effort of a hard day’s work without having to walk into the video room the next day and break it down on the TV screen.
He also got sober and said last year that he had stopped drinking.
It was all a precursor to his return to his passion — skiing. He recommitted leading up to Vancouver. And what a payoff. He came in second that night, but hardly felt like a runner-up.
“I do it because I want to be the person I know I can be,” he said. “I’ve really changed things around in the last 3 1/2 years. This is my medal for everything I’ve overcome, and I’m ecstatic.”
Bobsledder Steve Mesler was one of the thousands who was inspired watching Peterson that night.
“I’ll never forget watching him live his dream last February,” Mesler said on his Facebook page. “RIP one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever known.”
More recently, Peterson was enrolled at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, working on a degree while he took some time off and decided if he wanted to re-up for 2014. He was at the U.S Ski Team headquarters about a month ago, where he gave a speech that U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly was, typically, “fantastic.”
Peterson’s message to almost anyone he talked to was to take chances, to never settle for ordinary. And in a sport known for its risk-takers and daredevils, Peterson still stood out. Maybe the most fitting tribute is that nearly a decade after he first started trying to push his sport forward with the “Hurricane,” there still isn’t a skier who will try anything more daring.
“He was about setting a standard for his sport,” Kelly said. “He put that jump out there and nobody else really ever challenged him on it.”