Spinning and flipping through the night air, most of the men in aerial skiing look like the gymnasts and acrobats they once were. And then there's Jeret (Speedy) Peterson. Standing above the kicker in his star-spangled pants before his second jump in last Thursday's finals—slapping his boots and shouting, "C'mon, b----!"—the 28-year-old from Boise called to mind Evel Knievel, minus the motorcycle.
True, Knievel had a history of assault and various other erratic behaviors. But next to Peterson, he was the image of mental health.
We speak, of course, of the old Speedy, the alcoholic who got drunk after placing seventh in Turin in 2006, punched a friend in the mouth, was intercepted by the polizia and sent home in disgrace. We speak of the gambler who won $550,000 during a one-night Vegas binge in August 2007, only to lose it all in ill-timed real estate investments. And we speak of the depressive whose illness dragged him to the lowest depths imaginable.
"What was the lowest point in your life, after Turin?" Peterson was asked last week by a British journalist unfamiliar with his background. That was an easy one for Peterson: "When I tried to kill myself. Twice."
One of those attempts took place on Sept. 17, 2007. (Peterson has not specified when the other occurred.) He told Men's Journal, in its February issue, that he had parked his pickup at a Boise shooting range, attached a hose to the tailpipe, ran it through the back window and started the engine. He was saved by a policewoman who happened upon the scene soon afterward. Peterson went into therapy and didn't ski for a year, but with his doctor's help, he found a combination of medications that helped get his depression under control, and he returned to his sport in 2008.
"I've been in a great place in my life for the last year," he said last week. "I still have bouts of depression, but it's much more manageable. I don't do dumb things that make me feel guilty anymore." He's been sober, he says, "a year, year and a half," and his self-esteem has risen to the point where he can tell himself, "Dude, you're awesome. You did a good job." Adds Peterson, "It's easy to tell other people that. Sometimes it's difficult to tell yourself."
In Vancouver his problem after the first round of jumps was that four guys had been more awesome. Two of the brilliant Chinese jumpers, Liu Zhongqing and Jia Zongyang, were among those ahead of him. Peterson had no choice, really; he was going to have to throw the Hurricane.
It's his signature aerial, a five-twist, three-flip maneuver so gnarly that no one else has ever attempted it in competition. Peterson himself hadn't stuck the Hurricane, outside of the practice hill, since 2007. After crash-landing it in Thursday's warmup, he expected coach Matt Christensen to instruct him to shelve it for the night. Instead Christensen smiled and said, "Dude, just start your full-in earlier"—that is, his first twist off the kicker—"and you've got it."
Catapulting off the kicker, he spun through the trick—one twist on the first backflip, three on the second, one on the third—slapping to earth with only a minor glitch on the landing. His massive score, 128.62, vaulted him into first place.
And there he stayed until his friend Alexei Grishin of Belarus stuck a back-full-full double-full trick, edging Peterson by 1.2 points. Speedy would have to settle for silver. Did that disappoint him?