CYPRESS, British Columbia — Park City's Jeret "Speedy" Peterson finally did in the sport he loves what he's been doing every day of his troubled, painful, young life.
He landed on his feet.
On a cold, clear Thursday night, Peterson stared down the toughest trick possible in men's aerials — a triple flip with five twists, called the hurricane, that has both haunted and heralded his career — and it won him a silver medal on the much maligned mountains of Cypress.
"I don't know that I can really put it into words," he said of standing on the podium at his third Olympic Games after earning a score of 247.21. Belarus' Alexei Grishin won gold with a score of 248.41. China's Zhongquing Lui won bronze, and Peterson's U.S. teammate Ryan St. Onge was fourth.
After the silver medalist landed the hurricane, he skied into St. Onge's arms and celebrated what has been a tumultuous ride.
"It's not so much about the medal; it's not about the podium," said the 28-year-old Boise native. "It's about everything that I've been able to overcome. It's what it represents to me. Do I think it's awesome? You bet. I think when I hug my mom, it's going to hit me."
The idea of twisting and flipping through the air on skis has always been less troubling than the idea of dealing with the demons that tortured his life away from sport.
"I've had all kinds of things," he said of his problems off the snow, which have often hampered his development in the sport. "I've had trouble with alcohol that I've gotten taken care of. I've had depression; I've had suicide attempts; I had a roommate of mine commit suicide in front of me, and that's been in the last four to six years."
Peterson was sent home early from Torino in 2006 after he got into a drunken brawl at a bar. Before that embarrassing incident, he'd thrown the hurricane in an effort to win gold, failed to land it, and it cost him a medal. He finished ninth in 2002 and seventh in Torino.
Before his third trip to the Games, he talked with the Deseret News in Park City, where he has lived and trained for nearly 10 years. He said he has taken time off from skiing twice in an effort to deal with personal issues that range from trouble with alcohol to depression.
"This Olympics is very special for me. So many things in my life have been very difficult and challenging," said Peterson. "For me to be able to overcome those and still end up on top really means a lot to me. I do give myself a pat on the back for being able to realize my dreams one more time. And it's something that hasn't really come easily."
At that time, he said anything less than gold would be failure for him, and he talked often of landing the hurricane, which he hadn't done in competition since 2007.
"I guess I lied," he said laughing Thursday night. "I'm ecstatic. I couldn't ask for anything more than this. I've done so many things in my life that I've thrown myself down for, and it feels good to finally do something that I can lift myself and my country up for. I couldn't have done this without a lot of people. I have a whole team and family and a million friends that I have to thank. So thank you."
He said he felt different on the hillside Thursday night than he has in the past few years.
"I was really calm for some reason," he said before his two jumps. "I normally get pretty nervous, and I watch what everybody else's scores are, and I want to calculate what I can do. I didn't even do that all week long. I was just out there for myself, having fun, and it was everything that I could have imagined."
Peterson grew up in Idaho but ended up taking up aerials when some neighbors allowed him to tag along at a camp in Utah.
"I ended up loving it," he said, with his trademark grin.
The effusive, outgoing jokester said he has made mistakes, suffered from others' actions and beaten himself up a lot about anything he viewed as a failure. In the end, it was the death of a friend and his own suicide attempts that forced him to take a break from aerials and focus on fixing his broken heart.
"Depression is an interesting beast," Peterson said. "It's something that is very misunderstood, and it creeps up on you slowly. It's not like you snap, instantly break your arm. It's like one day, you're like, 'Holy Cow! I'm depressed.' Figuring it out, how it works, has been difficult; figuring out how to fix it has been very difficult."
He doesn't presume to know what everyone struggling with depression should do, but he does know what has worked for him.
"I can't really tell everybody to do one thing," he said. "For me personally, I went to a specific doctor, and I got put on a bunch of multivitamins, as well as medicine, as well as counseling. It's been really helpful for me."
Those who know him best were as emotional as he was about his victory Thursday night.
"To be honest, his training was not going quite as good as we were hoping," said U.S. freestyle head coach Jeff Wintersteen, who choked back emotion and wiped away tears. "He was spinning awfully slow. It was just apropos. He was in the exact same position he was in Torino, and not many people get a second chance. I'm just so happy for him."
Peterson said he wasn't sure what course his life will take from here, but he was cherishing this moment he has been dreaming about for nearly a decade.10 comments on this story
"I'm so stoked with how everything has gone," he said. "It's really hard to see anything when you're doing five rotations in three seconds. It's something that takes a lot of repetition, and I've put a lot of effort into it."
The medal feels all the more satisfying because he landed the jump that will forever be linked to his career.
"It shows people I can do things that they say I can't," he said. "To me, it's dumping a lot of things from my past. It allows me to tell myself that it's OK."