Jeret "Speedy" Peterson's Death a Cautionary Tale for Athletes Facing Depression

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It wasn't supposed to end this way.

But with all of the news about contracts, holdouts and lockouts, all of the boutique dogs, fancy cars and multimillion dollar homes, it’s sometimes hard to understand what goes on behind the scenes in the lives of professional athletes.

It’s hard to understand that some of them have problems just like the rest of us.

***

U.S. Olympic aerial skier Jeret Peterson died last Monday. He was 29 years old.

The Vancouver 2010 silver medalist called 9-1-1 before killing himself in a remote canyon between Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah, just several days after being cited for drunken driving in his home state of Idaho.

Known as “Speedy” because of a huge helmet he wore as a kid at a Lake Placid, N.Y., ski camp that reminded one of his coaches of "Speed Racer,” Peterson’s emotional problems were far from juvenile.

He suffered from serious depression, and he had ongoing problems with alcohol, both of which no doubt stemmed from his being sexually abused as a child and the death of his 18-year-old half-sister—when he was just 5—in an accident involving a drunk driver. In 2005, Peterson watched in horror as a friend committed suicide in front of him, an incident described in vivid detail in a Men’s Journal interview 18 months ago. Peterson's first suicide attempt came in September of 2007.

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But despite his rough 29 years, people who knew Speedy recall him fondly.

"The entire Olympic family is heartbroken to hear the news of Jeret ‘Speedy’ Peterson's untimely passing," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement. "I know Speedy's friends and family were incredibly proud of his effort in Vancouver, and his achievements were an inspiration to people all over the world. The personal challenges Speedy has battled are familiar to all of us."

"It's a big blow to all of us," Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the United States Ski & Snowboard Association told The (Park City) Park Record. "He was not only a great athlete, but a great friend."

Billy Demong, a fellow U.S. Olympian who had trained with Peterson said, "He's a really nice guy; he's been a good friend. I know that he's had a roller coaster of a journey."

Fellow U.S. Ski Teamers and friends took to Twitter last week to express their horror at what happened and to offer up anecdotes of great nights spent with Speedy.

I, too, got to know Speedy a bit, though it’s overstating the matter to call him a friend.

It was October of 2005 in Colorado Springs. I was working for USA Today and I was on a U.S. Olympic Team press junket at which we and other media outlets had the opportunity to interview many of the athletes set to wear the red, white and blue at the Winter Games the following February in Turin, Italy. We got the chance to talk to Apolo Ohno, Sasha Cohen, Joey Cheek and Hannah Teter, among others.

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Speedy was on the docket as well. Like many of the other Olympians-to-be, he was a sweet kid, happy to be there, excited at the opportunity to show off his skills on and above the snow on the world’s stage. I asked him about his notorious “Hurricane” jump: a groundbreaking five-twist, three-somersault maneuver—all "while flying as high as a five-story building"—that had never been attempted, much less landed in competition. He hoped to get the chance to give it a try in Turin.

Later that night, after grabbing dinner with some co-workers, I made my way back to the hotel and stopped at the bar for a drink. My co-workers and I saw Speedy and a couple of friends sitting in a corner, and we went over, re-introduced ourselves and joined them.

Our group chitchatted for a couple of hours, discussing the upcoming Games, what the pressure was like up at the top of the ramp waiting to jump and about how little the Olympic athletes were paid.

He was fun, incredibly kind and friendly and just seemed like a good, down-to-earth guy.

Maybe this is a case of hindsight being 20/20, but it seemed as if Speedy also had a darker side. And there was some bitterness and sadness underneath the happy-go-lucky exterior.

But all was perfectly pleasant, we wished each other luck and went our separate ways.

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Several months later in Turin, Speedy came out with a vengeance, and I was happy to follow along and root him on from afar. I didn’t attend the aerials event, but I watched with interest from a closed-circuit TV in our office at the press center.

After his first jump in the final round, he was in third place—medal contention. All he needed was a solid jump on his second attempt to earn a place on the podium.

But simply going half-assed to keep his place on the medal stand wasn’t what Speedy had in mind.

As Aimee Berg of Men’s Journal writes:

“Just one more to go, and the pressure was on: Nail the Hurricane, and he’d be a hero. Fail, and his high-risk decision would forever be second-guessed. He could opt for an easier trick, but easy had never made sense to Peterson. There was no question what he’d throw.”

He skied down the ramp confidently, raised his arms in the air and took off. He twisted, he turned: “one twist on the first backflip, three twists on the second, and one more on the final backflip.” As he neared the ground, his landing looked to be in good shape.

But "his momentum caused him to over-rotate the last flip,” wrote Berg. “Amazingly, he landed on his skis—but his hand grazed the ground. Goodbye, gold medal. Hello, seventh place.”

Warren Little/Getty Images
Peterson, left, with coach and friend Matt Christensen.

Critics said he should have played it safe and walked away an Olympic medalist. But that wasn’t Speedy’s game.

'That's not me,” he later told The Deseret News. “I want to be known for pushing the envelope. In aerials, it's go big or go home."

Little did he know that he’d soon be heading home—prematurely and ignominiously.

The night after his event, Speedy reportedly had his first drink in six months, got drunk and got into a skirmish with a childhood friend outside a bar, punching him in the mouth. Though he immediately apologized, he was picked up by Italian police and was on a plane headed home within 24 hours.

Of course, the media ate it up.

“A lot of people saw his story and said he must be a wild jackass and a cowboy,” said longtime coach and friend, Matt Christensen. He must be just another spoiled athlete. What a horrible representative of our great nation, chimed the cynics.

Few were able to appreciate the behind-the-scenes issues that had played such a major role in Speedy acting out. And a subsequent bankruptcy, along with continued issues with drinking and gambling, did little to quell the naysayers.

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Peterson, following his medal-clinching jump at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

Amy Donaldson of The Deseret News recalled Peterson discussing with her his troubled past prior to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

"He was so honest," she said. "I talked to him about being extremely hard on himself. He was cognizant of the fact, and knew it wasn't normal thinking. What we would see as a success, he would see as a failure."

But Speedy again overcame his demons to qualify for the 2010 Games. Again, he was considered a serious medal contender.

And again I watched from afar.

This time, on the wet Pacific Northwest snow, he landed his Hurricane. He finished in second place and tears streamed from his eyes on the medal stand as the silver was placed around his neck.

"I know that a lot of people go through a lot of things in their life,” Peterson said that night, “and I just want them to realize they can overcome anything. There's light at the end of the tunnel and mine was silver and I love it."

It was a fairytale ending.

“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,” wrote brilliant USA Today columnist Mike Lopresti last week. “Isn't that how the rest of the story is supposed to go?”

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Speedy said he’d quit drinking back in 2010. He had enrolled at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and was working on his degree as he reportedly took aim at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

But clearly things were far from perfect. Cited for drunken-driving the Friday before, last Monday night, he made a harrowing call to 9-1-1 telling them where he was and that he was going to kill himself.

Moments later, he did. Authorities found a suicide note near his car.

***

Depression can be a horrible thing.

For some people—even the most successful and most beloved of athletes and celebrities—there comes a time when nothing can make you forget the difficult things you’ve experienced in life: not drugs, not alcohol, not World Cup wins, not an Olympic medal, not even the love of family and friends.

And there are more people than we know with these kinds of problems. Some, too, are athletes, as Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall would now attest.

For some, there’s not enough hope or promise to keep fighting through it all, to keep pushing, to keep jumping.

"I know people who struggle with depression," said Donaldson, who cried when hearing of Peterson’s death last week. "I see them winning one day, and the next day, they're losing. Now, Speedy is a cautionary tale."

RIP, Speedy. You’ll be missed. I hope there’s a place in the eye of that Hurricane where you’re able to finally escape those demons.

And let’s hope that other people stricken with similar demons—whether they’re athletes or not—get help before it’s too late.

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