SALT LAKE CITY – Olympic silver medalist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson was found dead in a remote canyon in Utah in what police are calling a suicide. One of the world's most risk-taking and innovative freestyle skiers, the creator of the one-of-a-kind "Hurricane" called 911 before shooting himself, police said. The 29-year-old had been cited for drunken driving Friday in Hailey, Idaho and had pleaded not guilty.
Officers found Peterson late Monday night between Salt Lake City and Park City in Lambs Canyon. Police said a suicide note was found near Peterson's car; they declined to reveal what it said.
"Regardless of the amazing stuff he did skiing, it was the stuff he did for other people that was incredible to me," said Peterson's longtime coach and friend, Matt Christensen. "A lot of people saw his story and said he must be a wild jackass and a cowboy. He was just the opposite."
He was one of the most colorful of athletes, and he wore his heart on his sleeve — never more than on Feb. 25, 2010, when he walked off the mountain with tears streaming down his face after taking the Olympic silver medal.
"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 that night. "There's light at the end of the tunnel and mine was silver and I love it."
It was a poignant chapter to a career that, until then, had been filled with success on the smaller stages of his fringe sport but defined in the mainstream by his moment at the Turin Olympics where, after finishing seventh, he was sent home early after a minor scuffle with a buddy in the street.
Over the next months and years, he began filling in the details of a life story replete with incredible highlights and crushing disappointments.
While in Italy, he was still reeling from the suicide of a friend, who shot himself in front of Peterson only months before.
Peterson also had problems with alcohol and depression and admitted he had his own thoughts of suicide, all stemming from a childhood in which he was sexually abused and lost his 5-year-old sister to a drunken driver.
He picked up his nickname as a young boy because the big helmet he wore reminded his coaches of Speed Racer of cartoon fame.
But as his career progressed, he became better known for his signature jump, the "Hurricane" — five twists packed into three somersaults as he vaulted off the snowy ramp and flew 50 feet in the air.
It was high-risk, high-reward, and once Peterson started working on it in 2004, he insisted he'd have it no other way. It was a sight to behold when he landed it, and the judges rewarded him for taking the chance. Helped by the huge difficulty marks for the jump, he still holds the two-jump scoring record of 268.70, set at Deer Valley in January 2007.
"I've worked with amazing athletes who have taken a lot of calculated risks," Christensen said. "One thing I admired about Speedy is he never gave up on me. From the time I first started talking to him about five twists, he never gave up on it. He just kept doing it."
On many days, it set him up to finish first — or last — but nowhere in between.
He had seven wins on the World Cup circuit, was the 2005 World Cup champion and a three-time American champion.
But the stats and the medals were only a fraction of the story.
Born with the heart of a gambler, he took that passion to Las Vegas and won $550,000 playing blackjack one night in the pre-Turin days. But within years, he was virtually broke again after giving some of it away and losing even more in the tanking real estate market.
Trying to decide whether he wanted to stay in the sport after Turin, he took time off and started working in the construction business — a place, he said, where he could see the effort of a hard day's work without having to walk into the video room the next day and break it down on the screen.
He also got sober and said last year that he had stopped drinking.
It was all a precursor to his return to his passion — skiing. He recommitted leading up to Vancouver. And what a payoff. He came in second that night, but hardly felt like a runner-up.
"I do it because I want to be the person I know I can be," he said. "I've really changed things around in the last 3 1/2 years. This is my medal for everything I've overcome, and I'm ecstatic."
US Ski Team CEO Bill Marolt called Tuesday "a sad day in our sport."
"Jeret 'Speedy' Peterson was a great champion who will be missed and remembered as a positive, innovative force on not only his sport of freestyle aerials, but on the entire U.S. Freestyle Ski Team family and everyone he touched," Marolt said.
This year, Peterson was enrolled at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, working on a degree while he took some time off and decided if he wanted to re-up for 2014. He had signed a deal as a spokesman for the onion industry and was featured in a fun little video on YouTube cooking up a so-called "Hurricane Burger."
"He only has two speeds," it says at the start of the video. "Stop and go."
Peterson's message to almost anyone he talked to was to take chances, to never settle for ordinary. And in a sport known for its risk-takers and daredevils, Peterson still stood out. Maybe the most fitting tribute is that seven years after he first started trying to push his sport forward with the "Hurricane," there are only a small handful of skiers who will try anything that risky.
"Over the course of your career, you hope you get an athlete or maybe two athletes like him," Christensen said, "and he was one of those guys."
Associated Press reporter John Miller in Boise, Idaho contributed to this report.
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