Publish date:

Given his past, surviving the Hurricane is nothing to Peterson


CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia -- Jeret (Speedy) Peterson stood on his skis, a hundred feet above the kicker that would fling him five stories into the air, toward his destiny. After nodding as U.S. aerials head coach MattChristensen ticked off a few technical reminders, Peterson put the finishing touches on his ritual. Before hitting his boots and taking off, he said what he always says to himself in that situation:

"Come on, b****."

Is it offensive? Slightly, but less so when one considers that he's talking to himself. The funny thing, the 28-year-old Boise native was saying after winning a silver medal in men's aerials, was that "a lot of the other athletes have started saying it, and they don't even know what it means, like the Chinese guys. It's kind of flattering."

In the seconds before his second jump in the finals of the men's aerials, Peterson exhorted himself with particular urgency. He sat fifth after his first jump, with two of the brilliant Chinese jumpers, LiuZhongqing and JiaZongyang, ahead of him. He had no choice, really: he was going to have to attempt a trick he hadn't landed successfully in competition since 2007. He was going to have to throw the Hurricane.

It is a New Orleans drink and legendary boxer and a classic by Bob Dylan, but everyone in freestyle skiing knows that Speedy Peterson's Hurricane is simply the biggest, busiest, toughest trick there is: "a complicated eight-part series of twists and flips that ... requires such extraordinary precision, timing, and strength that no other skier has dared try it in competition."

That elegant description is courtesy of Aimee Berg, whose story on Peterson in the February Men's Journal drills down much deeper than the ingredients of an exotic aerial -- which Speedy threw, incidentally, for his second jump in the finals of the Turin Olympics.

There he hit the kicker going a smidge too fast, over-rotated on his final flip, bobbled his landing and finished seventh. And his bad day was just starting. After getting blotto that night and slugging a friend, he was arrested by Italian police and sent home in disgrace.

His journey in the intervening years has been a wild, roller-coaster ride fueled by Peterson's bouts with depression and a variety of other compulsions, including but not limited to alcoholism and gambling -- all expertly chronicled by Berg, and freely admitted to by Peterson in an informal chat with a handful of reporters an hour after the competition. At one point a British reporter asked him, "What was the lowest point in your life, after Turin?"

"When I tried to kill myself," he replied. "Twice."

SI Recommends

Asked if he was in a better, more solid place now, he said: "I've been in a great place in my life for the last year. I still have bouts of depression, but it's much more manageable. I don't do dumb things that make me feel guilty anymore.

"I've battled with alcohol for a long time, I've been sober for a over a year now, and it's something I give myself credit for."

He has given himself permission to tell himself, "Dude, you're awesome, you did a good job." Says Peterson,"It's really easy to tell other people that. Sometimes it's really difficult to tell yourself that."

Unprompted, he mentioned that Christensen is "one of the people I love the most on this earth ... He was the first person who came and saw me in the hospital. "

He was referring to the aftermath of one of the suicide attempts. Forgive me: he was on a roll, and I lacked the nerve to ask which one.

It was Christensen who told Petersen exactly what he needed to hear before the competition. In a practice session earlier on Thursday, Speedy drilled every trick but the Hurricane. "I crashed the one in training, and I was kind of wondering what [the coach] was going to say -- if he was going to say, 'Hey, we need to think about doing a new trick.' When he got to the take off zone, Christensen smiled at him and said, "Dude, just start your full-in earlier, and you got it."

He looked down the runway, repeated the words "Come on, b****," and started sliding. Leaving the kicker, he started his full-in -- first twist -- earlier. Hurtling into the night sky, he zipped through all the flips and twists, landing slightly heavily on his left ski but staying up with no problem, thrusting his left arm in the air and skiing into the arms of his supporters on the other side of the barrier. His massive score -- 128.62 -- gave him a total of 247.21 and vaulted him into first place.

And that's where he stayed until AlexeiGrishin of Belarus stuck a trick he'd never tried before in competition. By a margin of 1.2 points, he edged Peterson for gold.

Did that outcome leave him disappointed, embittered? Peterson looked genuinely confused by the question. "I want people to push our sport," he answered, finally. "I feel really good that Alexei beat me on a trick he's never done in his life."

"I've sat in press conferences before and said I won't be happy if I don't get a gold medal, and I completely lied." The point being, he wasn't going to lie now:

"I've never been this happy in my entire life," he said, before he was hustled off to drug-testing. "This is the best day in my entire life."