Jeret "Speedy" Peterson's life was defined as much by the chances he took as the things that he won.
He walked into a Vegas casino with a few grand he couldn't afford to lose and left with a cool half-million he later threw away.
He regularly soared off a ramp, 50 feet into the frigid air, and tried the "Hurricane" - a trick nobody in a sport full of daredevils would even consider.
Vancouver Olympic aerials silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson celebrates a World Cup victory in Lake Placid on Jan. 18, 2009.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
He branded himself as a free spirit, a lone wolf and a bit of a cowboy, then dared people to come inside and learn the real truth, even when it wasn't so comfortable to hear.
Peterson was found dead Monday night. Police ruled it a suicide, saying he called 911 before shooting himself in a remote canyon in Utah. He was 29. His death came a few days after the freestyle skier, who had admitted he battled depression and alcohol problems, was arrested for drunk driving in Idaho. A year earlier, a few days before he won the silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics, Peterson said he had given up alcohol.
I believed him that day because I wanted to - because Peterson was the kind of guy who made the unbelievable become believable.
He was the kind of guy so many of us dream of becoming - envelope-pushing, uncompromising, risk-taking - before we opt for more comfortable lives behind a computer or in front of a TV set.
He was an open book, sometimes to his detriment. But on the biggest day of his life, the day he landed the "Hurricane" - five twists impossibly wrapped inside of three somersaults in the span of a couple seconds - and finally won the Olympic medal he'd been dreaming about, he won everyone over.
"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 in the mountains near Vancouver. "There's light at the end of the tunnel and mine was silver and I love it."
It was hard not to get caught up in that moment.
Peterson had a way of drawing people in.
I remember the skeptical feeling I had when I first met him, years ago - a guy named "Speedy" with a trick called a "Hurricane." No way was I going to fall for that kind of too-good-to-be-true story. An hour later, with the competition long over, I had tucked the notebook into my parka and turned off the tape recorder, completely absorbed as we stood there on the snow, steam coming out of our mouths, and he went through the hour-by-hour breakdown of the night in Vegas that could have changed his life.
He lost all that money. Gave half of it away. Squandered the rest by investing in a real estate market that was starting to tank.
In discussions afterward, he told me the stories about his childhood, in which he was sexually abused and lost his 5-year-old sister to a drunken driver. He talked openly about his successes, his dreams, his regrets and his future - his plan to make the whole thing work.
All those experiences and plans made him who he was, he said, as opposed to the person people thought he was because of the name and the trick.
"Regardless of the amazing stuff he did skiing, it was the stuff he did for other people," said his coach and friend Matt Christensen. "If you were freezing in the street, he'd give you his shirt so you wouldn't freeze to death. If you knew him, you knew that about him."
The day he won the medal in Vancouver was supposed to be life-changing.
But the torch goes out, the medal goes up on a wall - or into a drawer - and life goes on, especially for athletes in a sport such as freestyle skiing, which gets 15 minutes of fame every four years then falls way, way out of the spotlight.
Guys like Peterson, who give too much and burn out too quickly to make this a full-time job, have to find real jobs or go back to school to recharge their batteries while they wait for the next Olympics to come around.
Peterson probably wouldn't have tried for 2014.
He put too much pressure on his body, and mind, trying to do a trick that was supposed to push the sport forward but instead left him standing out like a sore thumb. Other guys played it safe and tried to win. Peterson let it ride - every time - and took what he got.
"Over the course of your career, you hope you get an athlete or maybe two athletes like him. And he was one of those guys," Christensen said, summing up not only what it was like to coach, but to cover, a guy like Speedy.