'Just go out and be happy'

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Every four years, I learn a little something about a handful of winter sports. My knowledge is a mile wide and less than an inch deep. I then promptly forget most of it until the next time the cold-weather Olympics roll around.

When you cover the Winter Games, you often find yourself in the position of telling readers why the heck they should be interested in the lesser-known events on the schedule, a problem that my colleagues who write about our birthright sports such as baseball and football and college basketball don't have. But my answer is easy: There's no reason anyone has to pay attention, except that there are some athletes whose stories are so compelling I would follow them in any field of endeavor whether or not I really understand the rules.

Jeret "Speedy" Peterson is one of them. Aerial skiing didn't prevent terrible things from happening to him, and excelling at the sport didn't stop him from being self-destructive. But aerials also gave him the means to save his life.

Peterson won a silver medal by landing a trick he'd spent the past six years refining -- the triple-flipping, quintuple-twisting Hurricane. He hadn't landed it cleanly in competition since 2007, and when he hit the soft snow upright Thursday, his mouth was already open in a mighty, primal roar.

I watched it on television. Having tracked Peterson intermittently for a number of years, missing it in person was frustrating, but work dictated that I be somewhere else that night. Yet I may have seen and heard the best part anyway.

About 14 hours later, I was sitting a few feet from Peterson in a conference room in the main media center with a small group of reporters. He'd been on the medalists' usual media whirlwind and hadn't slept the night before.

The 28-year-old Peterson, who grew up in Boise, Idaho, used to live the way he competes. He was addicted to risk and outsized exploits, but the landing zone isn't as cushiony on dry land. Afflicted by depression and anger from childhood on, Peterson also seemed to be a magnet for random tragedy and exacerbated his problems with self-sabotage.

It's been a journey that would give anyone the bends. Peterson, whose gift for aerials became apparent the year he turned 11, lost his father in a divorce and his sister in a drunken-driving accident. He and two friends once won $500,000 in a single night at the blackjack tables in Vegas, but he had to declare bankruptcy in 2008. He barely missed doing a perfect Hurricane in Torino in 2006 and finished a respectable seventh, then got in a bar fight and left the Olympics in semidisgrace. A friend committed suicide in front of him in the summer of 2005. Two years later, Peterson tried it himself.

Peterson took charge of his life a couple of years ago, stopped drinking and found balance. "With me maturing as a person and doing things that don't cause me guilt, I'm able to focus on the things that bring me joy, and one of those is jumping," he said.

I asked him what he hoped his medal could do for him or for other people. Speedy started slowing down, choosing his words more deliberately. His face went papery pale, and his eyes reddened.

"I've already earned everything that I've wanted from this medal," he said, his voice tapering off.

He paused. Twenty seconds elapsed in a completely silent room.

"Ah, excuse me," he said.

Another pause.

"This medal represents me overcoming everything," Peterson continued, looking at me with no guard up, his blue-eyed gaze hauntingly steady. "It's my gift to myself. And I'm ecstatic. I'm extremely happy with the way things are turning out in my life."

His voice cracked as he described picking up his daily journal and replacing the simple phrase "I can do the Hurricane" with "I will do the Hurricane." It was, he said, not a goal but an affirmation.

A few minutes later, I asked for the microphone again and switched to a more banal topic. Would Peterson continue to compete? Would he work on a new trick? The answer was probably not for long.

"I've always had this feeling that I was put on this Earth to see how much crap somebody could go through and still come out on top," he said. "I want to be able to help other people. I have a huge soft spot for children in my heart."

I can't predict whether Peterson will be able to alter the course of someone else's life for the better, but I wouldn't bet against him. Given the messages he said were flooding in, perhaps he can do for depression what other Winter Olympic athletes have done for more tangible diseases, like Kris Freeman, who didn't let diabetes stop him from becoming a world-class cross-country skier, or snowboard racer Chris Klug, who's alive because he received the transplanted liver of a 13-year-old boy and now devotes himself to a foundation that educates young people about organ donation. Whether they medal or not, I just can't watch these athletes compete and think of them or their sports as obscure.

Suicide is a mysterious, irrational act and always will be. Why do some people give up while others with seemingly far more unbearable problems don't? Sometimes medications or therapy are the answer, but don't discount the power of a shared moment to resonate in a troubled mind or heart. Peterson's greatest hope is that his three seconds of airborne acrobatics just might talk somebody off the ledge.

"It feels great that people see what I've done and say, 'I can do that too,'" Peterson said. "It doesn't have to be a silver medal they won. Just go out and be happy. Tell you what, I've won seven World Cups and been the top guy that everyone was looking out for, and I was miserable.

"I would trade any win, any medal I've ever gotten in my life to be happy."

He just hit the exacta.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.