A farewell to an aerialist ...

August, 9, 2011
8/09/11
12:01
PM ET

In January of last year, aerial skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson sat across from me in a coffee shop in the lodge at the Deer Valley Resort, outside Park City, Utah. Sun was streaming in the windows and ambient noise swirled around us: Chatter, laughter, a barista banging a filter to get rid of espresso grounds.

Peterson was in a good place. He had already clinched a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team and the freestyle World Cup that weekend was another chance for him to refine the form and landing for his signature trick -- the triple-flip, five-twist Hurricane. He was finding it easier to speak openly about what had gone awry in his life. His backstory of personal tragedy made his well-publicized exit from the 2006 Olympics after a public brawl look like what it was, a trifle.

[+] EnlargeJeret Peterson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJeret Peterson won a silver medal in freestyle aerials at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

I found his willingness to talk about his struggle with depression impressive.

"My stance on it is that I didn't do anything to make it happen," Peterson said, speaking deliberately, a slight twang infusing his low voice with warmth. "You know, it's no different than having a broken arm. It's something that you have, it's something you have to deal with, and if you don't, it's not gonna heal."

He said he had liberated himself from the weight of public expectation.

"I definitely have a lot of people who support me in what I do," he said. "If there's people who feel they need to shun me for one incident, I don't even want those people in my life. I'm not here to impress everybody else. I'm here to have fun and I'm here to enjoy what I do and be the best person that I can be. I'm not going to please everybody and I'm not going to try to do that."

He spoke like someone who believed he was winning.

"I'm comfortable in admitting where I went wrong and things in my life that have gone wrong," he said. "If people don't want to be my fan, they don't have to be. I'm OK with that."

It wasn't a defensive statement, just a straightforward assessment: Take me or leave me, and if you take me, take the whole package. There was not one ounce of phony in Speedy Peterson.

In that moment, after years of watching Peterson from a reportorial distance, I did become a fan. Not in the traditional sense of rooting for a quantifiable result; I just wanted him to keep his bearings, maintain his hard-won balance and live a long, happy life. So when he stuck the Hurricane and won a silver medal in Vancouver a few weeks later and joy illuminated that open book of a face, I was quietly, unprofessionally elated.

His press conference the next morning was a moving tribute to the power of perseverance. I left the room feeling uplifted and wrote a story, and then I checked out of freestyle skiing for another four years. Peterson went back to school. I followed him on Twitter and Facebook. He seemed busy. I liked to think he was thriving.

Eighteen months later, Peterson, 29, took his own life a few days after a drunken driving arrest. I saw the Associated Press lead come across my Twitter feed and wailed involuntarily: No, no, no.

The aerialists have always awed me. I can watch replays of their exploits over and over again and still not understand how they do what they do. Peterson's candor and self-awareness added another layer to that admiration, as he appeared to be breaking the grip of an illness much as he broke free of the bonds of gravity. His death has affected me, and I can't imagine how it feels for those who actually knew him as I did not.

They gathered in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, last weekend to honor him with affection and humor and regret. Through the reports and snippets of video, I've learned some things I didn't know. I learned that Peterson, despite his own issues, was frequently the one who offered brotherly strength and support to his friends. I learned that he called a complete stranger -- Boise State University kicker Kyle Brotzman, the target of fans' fury after missing two field goals in his team's lone loss last season -- to urge him not to measure himself by that one game.

One of Peterson's closest friends was aerials teammate Emily Cook, who met him when she was 13 and he was a towheaded bundle of energy a couple of years younger. Cook qualified for the 2002 Olympic team, but broke both of her feet in a training crash two weeks before the Salt Lake Games. Peterson, the first alternate, replaced Cook, but was so pained at benefiting from her absence that he found ways to recognize her at every turn. The day of the aerials competition at Deer Valley, with Cook watching from a wheelchair in the stands, he flashed his gloves in front of the television cameras. One said "Hi." The other said "Emily."

Those gloves were displayed at the service last Saturday. Cook spoke there, and was kind enough to let me excerpt a portion of her remarks.

"Sometimes I simply needed a shoulder to cry on, but often on the hill I needed someone to remind me why I was there that day. He knew when and how to make me laugh and when and how to get me to toughen up and get a job done. He knew how to push me to be the best I could be and most importantly he knew how to make me smile.

"Speedy is someone who helped me get where I am today. He not only represented me at the 2002 Games when I was injured and shared his experience with me daily, but he also stood for me for the three years of rehab that followed. His constant reminders that we would walk into the next Opening Ceremony together got me through. He helped me through the fear and uncertainty and never gave up on me, no matter how daunting things looked. Walking into the Opening Ceremony of the 2006 Olympics hand in hand with him and the rest of our teammates is a memory I will always cherish.

" ... His care and concern for others made him the amazing person he was ... he was always watching out for the rest of us, making sure we were OK, and I know that we will all come together to carry that legacy on."

How someone so charismatic, generous, loyal and empathic could have been so unforgiving with himself -- this is only one of many things that is beyond understanding now.

Peterson's life and death are also a humbling reminder to those of us who observe athletes for a living that when we witness tangible achievement, it is a snapshot more often than a bellwether. Yes, an Olympic medal can be life-altering, but a path altered for the better can fork again and again. The next snowstorm fills in the boot-prints on the hill. The challenges continue. Sometimes they're more acute after a win than a loss.

When Peterson held up his silver medal, it was only natural to look through the lens and see a portrait of triumph and redemption, a fresh beginning. That is what he said he wanted it to be. He had done his utmost in competition; he intended to continue doing the best he could on dry land. For all those who loved him and will miss him so dearly, I wish that had been enough to keep him among you.

The family and friends of Jeret "Speedy" Peterson have established thespeedyfoundation.org, dedicated to addressing mental illness and suicide.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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