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Jeret 'Speedy' Peterson of the United States reacts after performing the first jump of Men's Aerials final at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games at Sauze d'Oulx, Italy, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Utah tragedy: The last flight of Speedy Peterson

First Published Jan 06 2014 11:31 am • Last Updated Jan 06 2014 11:30 pm

Park City • It was dark when Jeret Peterson tried to navigate his way through the tunnel. He turned off Interstate 80 and guided his silver Dodge Dakota through the desolate and quiet area known as Lambs Canyon.

The mountains loomed large and the tall pines crested over the narrow road, but at around 8:30 at night, it’s doubtful he could have seen much beyond whatever passed in front of the truck’s headlights.

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For nearly four miles, he zipped along the canyon’s curves, eager to put everything behind him. Peterson, 29 at the time, was plenty familiar with the mountains around Park City, less than a half-hour drive from Salt Lake City. It’s where he grew up as an athlete, honed his skills as a devil-may-care freestyle aerialist, trained for three Olympic Games. It’s where he experienced so much joy and where he endured so much merciless pain.

On that summer night in 2011, there surely wasn’t much to see. Hunters head out that way. Sometimes hikers, too, but not usually so late. It probably took about 15 minutes to finally reach the dirt parking lot, where a locked gate prevents vehicles from going any farther. That’s where Peterson parked his truck and pulled out his phone. A woman’s voice answered on the other end.

"Nine-one-one, what’s the address of your emergency?" she said.

"I’m at the parking lot at the top of Lambs Canyon."

"Okay, what’s going on there?"

"I’m going to kill myself."

- - -

Before the world took to calling him Speedy, he was just Jeret, the youngest of three kids growing up in Boise, Idaho, a tightly wound ball of energy and mischief. "A little sweetheart, a real tender spirit," said his mother, Linda Peterson.

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His parents divorced when he was young, and his father was barely in his life. Still, Peterson could endlessly entertain himself. He ordered firecrackers from a catalogue and sold them to classmates for a profit. He took the screen off a second-floor window and invited friends to leap onto the trampoline below. Peterson was always the first to introduce himself to the new kid in school.

"If there were any kids getting picked on, if there was something that was unfair, Jeret was the first to step up," said Jay Kealey, a friend since childhood. "He was not one to hold his tongue."

Peterson was so excitable and friendly, but his smile often seemed to mask the scars. "Things have been going wrong for me since the day I was born," he once told Men’s Journal magazine. Peterson was sexually abused when he was younger, though as an adult, he’d say he had no memory of the abuse. And when he was 5, his older sister Kim was killed by a drunk driver just a few weeks before her high school graduation.

"I remember he kept asking me, ‘Where did Sissy go? She’s not in her room?’ " his mother recalled.

Linda put her son in counseling and was constantly looking for healthy outlets. That’s part of the reason she sent him across the country with a neighbor to attend a freestyle skiing camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Peterson was at least a year younger than the 12-year age requirement, but Linda lied on the application and put him on a plane.

There, he immediately caught the eye of coaches. Smaller than the others, he wore a large snowmobile helmet and a black-and-white-checkered life jacket and ran circles around the other young skiers. He reminded the coaches of the "Speed Racer" cartoon character, and they started calling him Speedy.

"And it just stuck," said Kris "Fuzz" Feddersen, a three-time Olympian who helped run the camp.

Peterson fell in love with aerials, the Winter Olympics’ original adventure sport, in which competitors launch themselves off a ramp, going head over skis, twisting and flipping for judges. As he began competing seriously, everyone associated with the sport seemed to fall in love with Peterson, too. Part of his appeal was talent - he was fearless and looked like a natural flying through the air - but it was mostly his personality.

He was the one who always played jokes, cheered up teammates, befriended strangers and would do anything for a laugh. He was the one who’d wander off at the airport while others were checking their luggage, and swathe himself in the plastic wrap intended for suitcases.

"He was such a goofball all the time," said his good friend, Emily Cook, a two-time Olympic aerialist.

As a teenager, Peterson began training in Park City. He made the U.S. team at age 16, was a junior national champ at 17 and competed in the 2002 Olympics at 21.

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