Just last month, Jonathan Wentz achieved one of his dreams: He competed in the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
And he loved every moment of it. His entire family, including his parents and sister, and his best friend made the trans-Atlantic journey to watch him compete in the sport of Para-equestrian. He stayed in the athletes’ village and enjoyed visiting the city of London.
“It was a dream come true,” Wentz told friends after his final day of competition.
His friends now look at that trip to London with bittersweet emotions. Wentz died unexpectedly over the weekend while at Southern Methodist University, where he was on a full scholarship and was in his final year of studies. He was 21.
The cause of death for Wentz, who was born with cerebral palsy, remains unknown.
“It’s so difficult because he was so young and this is so unexplained,” said Hope Hand, executive director for the United States Para-Equestrian Association. “I’ve known him since he was a pre-teen and he would come to events and watch and would tell me, ‘I’m going to do this someday.’
“He was so proud to be in London and he really lived every moment, and he was very close to a bronze medal. Everything was just going his way, which is why this is just so hard to accept. But I am so happy that he had that experience.”
Wentz had enjoyed a stellar season this year, achieving top results with multiple horses. He was ranked as high as No. 10 Para-Equestrian in the world on the FEI World Ranking List. And at the 2012 USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage National Championships held in Gladstone, N.J., Wentz earned Reserve Champion with horse, Richter Scale. Wentz earned one of four spots among Para-Equestrians on the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Team in London.
Wentz placed fourth in London in the individual championship test (Grade 1b class), just 4.695 points behind bronze medalist Pep Puch of Austria. In the individual freestyle test, Wentz finished fifth.
“Jonathan was very, very dedicated,” said Kai Handt, Wentz’s coach of about four years. “When he first came to us, he said he wanted to go the Paralympics. He didn’t have a horse. He had only been riding at the local level. We had to come up with a plan. But we made a plan and he worked seven days a week to follow that plan.”
Handt said that Wentz was a regular fixture at the barn he runs with his wife, Rachel, and that their daughter, Julia, was one of Wentz’s best friends.
“He pretty much lived with us,” Handt said.
In the days following Wentz’s death, Handt said he and his wife have received emails from riders from around the globe.
“We have been hearing from people from Germany, Portugal, all over,” Handt said. “He was very well known and a great ambassador for the sport. This is a very great loss. Not just for us but for the riding community.”
Wentz was 5 when he began riding horses. What began as a method of therapy blossomed into a passion for equestrian sports. He began training with Handt at the North Texas Equestrian Center in 2008, and quickly found success. Six months after working with Handt, Wentz competed in his first CPED13* and USEF Para-Equestrian National Championships.
In addition, Wentz took time out of his schedule to speak to children at schools about the Paralympic Movement and he worked to make sure athletes with disabilities would be included in various events.
Even though he was one of the younger Paralympic athletes, he blended into the community quickly. Paralympian Jon McCullough, a soccer seven-a-side athlete who last month was named to the IPC Athletes' Council, said he only had brief meetings with Wentz but could see Wentz’s enthusiasm for the Paralympic Movement.
“I only had a few conversations with him but from what I knew about him, he was so optimistic about what he could do for the Paralympic Movement and what he could do for other kids. This is a loss that hurts.”
A celebration of Wentz’s life will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Grace Bible Church, 11306 Inwood Road, Dallas, 75229. Donations can be made to USPEA/Jonathan Wentz Scholarship Fund, 3940 Verde Vista Drive, Thousand Oaks, Calif., 91360. The USPEA is a 501(c)(3) and all donations are tax-deductible.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.