Aerial skier Jeret (Speedy) Peterson stands atop a hill, reaching into the emotional reserves that stoke the fearlessness he needs to throw a jump called the Hurricane. The move is a wild blur of three backflips and five twists, and Peterson was the first to land it in international competition. "C'mon, bitch," he tells himself before each attempt, trying to build up enough rage to pull him through the torque and the terror of his blind free fall. "Up there I want to let all my emotions out," he explains. "Take the passion I've built up and lay it out on the snow."
Peterson, 24, has made the most of his inner fire. Like fellow freestyle competitor Jeremy Bloom, who specializes in moguls, Peterson is the defending World Cup champion in his event and a favorite to take gold in February at the Turin Olympics. Through four competitions this season he is fifth in World Cup points, after a subpar 26th-place finish last weekend in an event in Changchun, China. But Peterson has passion and torment still untapped.
Last June he returned to his house in Park City, Utah, to check in on his roommate, who he says had been fighting drug and alcohol dependency. In the 18 months he had known Trevor (Trey) Fernald, Peterson often looked after him by bringing him along to competitions or finding tasks for him to do around the house in lieu of paying rent. As Peterson walked through the front door on June 26, Fernald was standing there with a gun in his hand. Fernald took a last look at Peterson and without warning shot himself in the temple. "One second things are O.K.," Peterson says, "the next second I'm trying to put Trey's eyeball back in his head."
Fernald's death deepened Peterson's sense of guilt. As a child growing up in Idaho, he was molested by someone he will not name, and like many victims he blamed himself. He internalized his pain until three years ago, when at a function in his hometown of Boise to raise money for an organization that works to prevent child abuse, he told his young audience that he, too, had been victimized. "If you think you deserved it," he said, "I promise it wasn't your fault. I know because I've lived that feeling for a long time."
Peterson's trying past has long been hidden under his carefree attitude. He's an avowed redneck who ropes cattle in the summers and frequently competes wearing a Western-style belt buckle personalized with his unusual first name and his nickname. "Jeret" was picked by his sister Kim (who, in yet another tragedy, was killed by a drunk driver in 1987, when Jeret was five). Instructors at an aerials camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., dubbed Peterson Speedy at age 11 after watching him cut in front of other skiers to get in extra jumps. "I hadn't grasped the concept of waiting in line," says Peterson, who used a birth certificate doctored by one year so he could attend the 12-and-older camp.
Peterson was added to the 2002 Olympic freestyle team (which includes the top-ranked aerialists regardless of gender) when Emily Cook bowed out with foot injuries. "Jeret came over the day before the [Olympic] competition to hang out and eat pizza," recalls Cook, who also lived near the event site in Park City. "Hours before the biggest day of his life he was still making sure I was O.K."
After finishing ninth at the Games, Peterson had a breakthrough season in 2004-05 with three World Cup victories and three seconds. His success came after he mastered two types of jumps that incorporate three flips and four twists. At a training camp in October, Darcy Downs, one of the U.S. coaches, jokingly suggested that Peterson should add a fifth twist to a practice jump into water. A month later Peterson landed the jump on snow.
Go for broke would be an appropriate battle cry for Peterson. Over the summer he took $5,000 he had saved from his job in the paint department at a Home Depot and parlayed it into more than $200,000 at blackjack tables in Las Vegas. "Everything in my life is all or nothing," Peterson says. He has already experienced plenty of both.
? For more Olympic sports coverage, go to SI.com/olympics.