By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006
TURIN, Italy, Feb. 19 -- In freestyle skiing, the trick is confusion and terror. The more you create in the judges' minds by twisting, somersaulting and freefalling 60 feet off snow-packed hills in an aerials competition, the better. The more you contort your body in the most unnatural of ways, the better your chance of winning an Olympic gold medal.
Terror and confusion. The illusion of it made Jeret Peterson the most accomplished aerialist in the world. The reality made Jeret Peterson an angry child, a hellion teenager and, last summer, a grief-stricken roommate still trying to overcome the horrifying image of his friend putting a gun to his head and killing himself.
"Something about my world, it's all or nothing, I don't live between the margins," Peterson said. Standing outside a news conference room in the Main Media Center here last week, the 24-year-old from Boise, Idaho, shook his head and shrugged. "I never have."
Life won't let him remain there.
He had known Trey, Trevor Fernald, about a year and a half. Fernald, Peterson said, was fighting drug and alcohol addiction when he welcomed him into the life of a popular, extroverted member of the U.S. ski team. He brought him to World Cup competitions and arranged free rent by having Fernald do household tasks. On his way to the Olympics, Peterson would help him fight his demons.
But when he walked through the front door of his house last June 26 in Park City, Utah, Fernald stood there with a gun in his hand. Fernald looked at his friend for the last time and, without a word, shot himself in the temple. Peterson ran and knelt over his bleeding roommate, doing what friends do for friends when they have a bad accident on the slopes: fix them, try to put their parts back together. It was no use. Trey was gone.
"There's times definitely in which I look back and I remember the good times I had with my buddy and then there's times where, you know, I can realize that he was struggling," Peterson said.
Fernald remains in his subconscious. He has not yet tried to contact Fernald's parents, whom he hardly knows.
"There's no way that somebody cannot be affected by seeing one of their friends blow their brains out in front of you," he said in a Web site interview. "Of course, that's a life-changing experience."
The tragedy brought out a guilt that Peterson had been burying for years over another life-altering incident.
Peterson was sexually abused as a young child while in Idaho, by a person he will not name. Typically, psychiatrists and social workers deal with victims who blame child molestation on themselves, and Peterson was no different. He lived with the awful feeling that he had done something to cause the abuse, never telling anyone until 2003. When Peterson spoke for the Idaho Advocacy Program on a national day of child abuse awareness and prevention, he shared his story with several abused children.
"If you think you deserved it, I promise it wasn't your fault," he told the children. "I know because I've lived with that feeling for a long time."
In 1987, he also lost a sister, Kim, who was killed by a drunk driver. He was 5 years old.
"I've definitely not been given a silver spoon," he said. "But I love the hand that I've been dealt and it's something that I cherish. I wouldn't change anything that's happened to me because, like I said, it's built me to the person that I am today. It gives me the fuel to fire my career, to get me amped up about jumping."
Peterson is the defending World Cup aerials champion and the favorite in the men's competition. In a sport wrought with danger and possible injury, he wins primarily because his peers feel more fear than him.
Teammates and friends call him "Speedy." At home in his native Boise he is a calf-roping, tongue- and ear-piercing, double-down, wild-eyed gambler -- taking risks on and off mountains that few others have the gumption to take.
He parlayed $5,000 saved from his job as a clerk in a Home Depot paint department into more than $200,000 during a Las Vegas blackjack binge last summer.
His signature aerials move involves three back-flips and five twists. Watching Peterson spin three revolutions and five human scissors one day while trying to throw the move down, his coach gave it a name.
"It's a hurricane," he said.
"I was like, the Hurricane. That's it," Peterson said.
He plans to execute the move on his final jump, his second during the medal round on Thursday. Peterson knows: He throws down the Hurricane in competition, it's over. And either way, he survived more than one to get here.
Asked if he had every dwelled on his misfortune, Peterson said, "Oh yeah."
"My past is what has made me the person I am today," he added. "It's built my character. I don't regret anything that's happened to me in my life. And if I do come away with a gold medal I don't think I am going to go out and say, 'Hey, look I was an abused child' or anything like that.
"But if it will help other people get over their symptoms and their issues with child abuse, then definitely."
The anger over his molestation, Peterson said, made him moody and violent as a youngster. He became an excitement addict, unable to live an existence close to calm. It wasn't until he began exploring the possibilities of speed and deception on the slopes that he found a way to channel his aggression and negative energy.
From the moment he raced toward a hill, Peterson found the faster he went, the higher he rose, the more difficult the maneuver, the more his heartbreak morphed into hope. The more he skied, the more he bottled everything eating him up inside and let it go.
"It became my release," he said.
The rage. The passion. The feeling of knowing nothing can hurt you but yourself.
They all came out when Peterson put his feet in the binders, dugs his poles deep into the snow, and took flight, high above the terror and confusion.
Freestyle Skiing Men's Aerials Qualifying Top Five, World Cup Standings 1. Kyle Nissen, Canada 2. Dmitri Dashinski, Belarus 3. Warren Shouldice, Canada 4. Ryan St. Onge, U.S. 5. Jeret Peterson, U.S. U.S. Team Eric Bergoust Joe Pack On TV NBC, 9-11:30 p.m.