Olympic medalist, skier Jeret Peterson, found dead in Utah canyon

Jeret "Speedy" Peterson celebrates his silver medal in the Men's Aerials in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in February 2010.
Jeret "Speedy" Peterson celebrates his silver medal in the Men's Aerials in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in February 2010. Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Jeret Peterson faced serious personal challenges throughout his life, but he rose to great heights in aerial skiing — and will be remembered as an Olympic medalist who took the sport to a new level.

“He was never satisfied to do what everyone else was doing and just do it better,” said Tom Kelly, spokesman for the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association. “He always wanted to do something bigger.”

The 29-year-old’s body was found at 9:30 p.m. Monday outside his pickup in Lambs Canyon, a 15-minute drive east of Salt Lake City, according to a spokesman for the Unified Police of Greater Salt Lake.

Lt. Justin Hoyal said Peterson called 911 and told a dispatcher that he was going to kill himself. He left a note at the scene.

The Boise native competed in three Winter Olympics and won a silver medal in aerial skiing in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010.

In 2007, he set a world record that still stands for a two-jump score at a World Cup at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah.He went into that competition banged up and bleeding. He had really taken some hammering in the training jumps,” Kelly said. “In the competition, he just laid them down perfectly.”

He would find himself in trouble, though, regularly — a bar fight during the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, a burglary charge in Ada County and last week’s DUI arrest in Sun Valley.

His three decades were also marked by tragedy. He told the Statesman in 2003 that he had been abused as a child. His older sister had been killed by a drunk driver as a child. One of his friends and roommates killed himself — as Peterson was walking in the door of their Park City apartment.

But on the slope, he was focused on one thing: air.

Peterson’s signature jump was called The Hurricane — a trick so daunting that other skiers wouldn’t try it in serious competitions. He named it for what it felt like as he spun and twisted as high as 50 feet in the air and then tumbled down to the steep slope below.

That determination was one reason Peterson’s death so devastated his friends and fans.

“It’s brutal,” said Graham Watanabe, an Idahoan who competed on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team with Peterson. “You never like to see someone go this early. ... It’s not something I can say that I expected.”

Watanabe, who now lives in Park City, said he ran into Peterson on the campus of Westminster College in Salt Lake City just a couple of weeks ago.

“He didn’t really have time to talk — he was on the phone — but he took the time to say hello,” Graham said.

Peterson was studying business at Westminster, and, according to his Twitter account, juggling his passion with his studies.

“Skiing has been GREAT lately, but I have to go to bed. ... I have a statistics test in the morning! good night everyone!” he wrote in February.

A few days later, he penned this: “Beautiful day skiing at Park City Mountain Resort today! It was awesome! Now its time to hit the homework. ... ”

In March, he told his followers a couple in New York had just told him they named their son Jeret after watching him at the Olympics.

Earlier this year, Peterson became the 2011-12 spokesman for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee. He autographed pictures at the Idaho-Oregon Fruit and Vegetable Convention in McCall in early June and was featured in an article in The Produce News.

Kelly said no one had ruled out the possibility that Peterson could have competed in his fourth Olympics in 2014.

Peterson got the nickname Speedy pretty early in life — and it fit. When he was 11, he lied about his age to get into a jumping camp for 12- year-olds.

“I was about 3-foot-nothing when I started, and I’d just run up these stairs. ... I’d cut in front of everybody and take five jumps in the time that everybody else took two,” Peterson said years later.

He was still a teenager when he began traveling with the U.S. Ski Team.

When competing, he wore a cowboy belt buckle emblazoned with his nickname and the names of his high school buddies — Tyler, Mase, Skiff and Jay. He always wore his lucky American flag boxers and dark underclothes — because he saw himself as the dark horse competitor for so many years — and unmatched socks from his bench-riding football career at Timberline High School.

He embodied the rock ’n’ roll image of the daredevil skier — he even pierced his tongue when he was 16 and saw himself as “a little rebel kid.”

“I couldn’t eat for a week; I had to sip soup through a straw, but I was cool,” he said in 2002. “I’ve decided to keep it, and I don’t know why.”

When he signed with an agent that year and his bank account rose from $1,000 to $12,000, he said he would pay his bills first, but he was eyeing a toy: a Honda Shadow motorcycle.

He famously once turned his modest Home Depot salary into a small fortune at a blackjack table in Las Vegas. But by 2008 he had filed for bankruptcy in federal court.

He was a late addition to the 2002 Olympics and got to compete in front of his friends and family in Salt Lake City. He worked to perfect The Hurricane and pushed himself to the limit in Turin. He didn’t quite nail it and finished a disappointing seventh.

The year before, he had watched his friend kill himself and had been arrested for stealing a gun with another close friend — and he hadn’t left that trouble behind. When he got drunk in a bar in Italy and got in a much-publicized fight, the U.S. Olympic Team sent him home.

Austin Murphy wrote last year in Sports Illustrated about a conversation Peterson had with reporters that winter. They asked what marked his lowest point.

“When I tried to kill myself,” he replied. “Twice.”

Peterson battled depression and alcohol most of his life. While some of his teammates saw sports psychologists, Peterson said he saw a “regular psychiatrist.”

In 2008, he told the Statesman he had quit drinking and was refocusing on qualifying again.

“I have had an insane amount of things happen to me, and I’ve been through a crazy whirlwind of a life,” Peterson said in the months leading up to the 2010 Olympics.

“I’m only 28 years old and I feel like I’ve had enough turmoil and drama for three lifetimes. It’s made me grow up, and it’s really made me figure out what is important to me. All the other things I used to think were important — going out and partying and drinking, that kind of stuff — that’s not even a thought in my mind anymore. A lot of it has to do with maturity. A lot of it has to do with just taking care of myself the way I need to and being honest with myself and true to myself.”

The Hurricane, with its five twists and three somersaults, symbolized his gutsy attack on life. Its degree of difficulty was the highest in the sport.

“It’s an awesome jump. I’ve tried it, but it’s not in my repertoire,” Joe Pack, an American teammate and the 2002 Olympic silver medalist, told the Statesman in 2006. “Speedy’s a unique individual in the way he pushes himself. The Hurricane is a big call. He’s good at it, and he takes all the credit with that. He’s pushing the limits of our sport, for sure.”

Attempting it may have cost him a medal in Turin that year — but it put him on the podium in Vancouver.

“I know that a lot of people go through a lot of things in their life, and I just want them to realize they can overcome anything,” Peterson said through tears the day he won his silver medal. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and mine was silver, and I love it. ... I’ve said in press conferences before I won’t be happy if I don’t get a gold medal — I completely lied. The reason I said that was because I didn’t know. Nobody goes out there, ‘Oh, man, I hope I get a silver medal.’ I’ve never been this happy in my entire life.”

(Gregory Hahn and Kathleen Kreller contributed.)

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