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Wednesday
Jul272011

Olympian Jeret 'Speedy' Peterson Carried Traumas to His Death, Experts Say

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(SALT LAKE CITY) -- Jeret "Speedy" Peterson was the only Olympic skier who could pull off his gravity-defying signature jump -- the Hurricane. The breathtaking aerial move consisted of five twists and three somersaults at more than 50 feet in the air. The jump never failed to draw wild cheers from awestruck spectators.

This jump won Peterson a silver medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Feb. 25, 2010. Exactly 17 months later, to the day, 29-year-old Jeret "Speedy" Peterson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a Utah canyon.

The death was unexpected for those who knew the famously kindhearted athlete with a twinkle in his eye and a genuine but mischievous smile.

But behind that smile and his passion for a risky sport was a lifetime of painful and traumatic events that psychologists said likely stayed with him through both personal and professional highs and lows.

Peterson had spoken publicly about his struggles with alcohol, depression and suicidal thoughts. He had been the victim of sexual abuse as an infant, which his mother later told him about, turning him into an activist for sexually abused children. He also lost his 5-year-old sister in an accident involving a drunken driver.

"When you've had trauma in the past, like the loss of a sibling or sexual abuse in your history, those things are always part of your life story, and other stresses can bring them to the foreground, while good times can push them to the background," said Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist and professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University.

Months before the Turin Olympics in 2006, a friend of Peterson's committed suicide in front of him. Peterson came in seventh place in Turin and was sent home early from the Games for getting into a brawl with a friend after a night out celebrating with the team.

"If you know someone who has committed suicide, it does increase your risk of committing suicide," Kaslow said. Other risk factors include substance abuse, childhood traumas, depression and loss, all of which Peterson experienced. Kaslow said that these risks could be managed through good social support, coping skills, religious or spiritual involvement, or therapy.

"Here is a guy who's had traumas etched into his memory and obviously caused him problems throughout his life," said Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In 2010, Peterson said that he had stopped drinking. But last Friday, he was arrested outside Hailey, Idaho, for drunken driving. He pleaded not guilty.

The Vancouver Games were redeeming for Peterson's career and public image. Even though he had been the 2005 World Cup champion, a seven-time winner on the World Cup circuit, a three-time American champion and a three-time Olympic team member, he was often remembered for his tumultuous experience in Turin.

But when he nailed his signature jump in Vancouver and came away with the silver medal, he walked off Cypress Mountain with tears streaming down his face and hope for the future.

"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 after winning his medal. "There's light at the end of the tunnel, and mine was silver and I love it."

Unfortunately, this healthy outlook was not to last.

The psychologists who spoke for this story, neither of whom had treated or been in contact with Peterson, said that the time between peaks can be very difficult for those whose occupations center on thrilling events.

"Oftentimes when you have people like Olympiads or people who go on space shuttles, they're at the height of their careers and their lives," Kaslow said. "For some of them, it's really hard to figure out what's next. When they don't have that fun center to take up a big part of their [lives], they feel lost, and some people become more vulnerable."

Peterson was enrolled as a student at Westminster College in Salt Lake City this year, where he was working toward a degree and had not yet decided whether he would train for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

"Once the glory is over and you come back down to baseline, somebody like that is at risk of slipping further into depression," Klapow said. "Nobody's paying attention to them anymore, the glory is not there, and now he has time to be with his thoughts again."

These thoughts led Peterson to drive to the remote Lambs Canyon in Utah, between Salt Lake City and Park City, late Monday night. There, Peterson called 911 and told police where they could find him after he shot himself, police said. A suicide note was found near his car, but police have not disclosed its content.

Despite Peterson's troubled past, news of his death shocked those who knew him as the charismatic boy from Boise, Idaho, who had a passion for the open air and a determination to do what others said was impossible.

"We cannot always predict things," Kaslow said. "While we oftentimes associate suicide with people who are depressed and disengaged from life, there are a lot of people who kill themselves who seem to be doing well in life."

Klapow emphasized that problems such as depression and alcoholism cannot be viewed simply as weaknesses that people need to "buck up" and overcome. They are illnesses that can be managed but must be taken seriously, because otherwise, they can lead to tragic outcomes.

Today, the athletic community is reeling from the loss of one of its most talented stars.

"The silver medal is the thing that people recognize, and it's the iconic representation of excellence in the Olympics," Tom Kelly, the vice president of communication for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, told ABC News. "What we remember him for is someone who took his sport to a new level that it had never seen and it may never see again."

After the Vancouver Games, Peterson returned to his native Boise, where his community came together to celebrate its hometown hero. Many children came to a rally held in his honor where he received a key to the city and basked in the pride of his town and his accomplishment.

"This is a sad day for Boise and for all of us who admired 'Speedy' Peterson's accomplishments, both on the slopes and in his life," said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter in a statement. "The hundreds of kids who came to City Hall to shake Speedy's hand after he 'medaled' in Vancouver last year are a living testament to his power to inspire and motivate. It is truly tragic that, in the end, there was one hill he wasn't able to conquer."

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