PARK CITY — Four years ago this week, Ron Jackenthal was trying to figure out how he was going to live with a shattered heart.
Thursday, the 55-year-old Park City man spent the day seeing all the different ways his son Sam, a 16-year-old he lost in a tragic ski accident in 2015, continues to inspire kindness far beyond the friends and family who mourn his loss every day.
“It’s bittersweet,” Jackenthal said of what it was like to see Park City celebrate Live Like Sam Day. “He’s physically gone, and I can’t change that. But how lucky am I to be able to have a child who continues to be a force of energy for goodness and kindness, who continues to inspire people. ... I believe he’ll continue to inspire people for generations to come.”
Sam Jackenthal was a promising freeskier training at the Winter Sports School in Park City. Six months before he died, he won the freeskiing combined USSA Junior National Championship as a 15-year-old. He was ranked in the top 60 men in the world and the top 20 in 18-and-under. He was also a champion inline skater, winning the AIL Under-16 title in 2014 and 2015.
In September of 2015, Sam traveled to Australia for a training camp where he was severely injured. When his father arrived at his side, Sam was in a coma and later died surrounded by his family on Oct. 1.
“He was my firstborn, arguably my best friend,” Jackenthal said. “You can’t take back what happened. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. It could have happened to anyone. It happened to us.”
He carries the pain of losing his son every day, but he also carries the love and inspiration that Sam was to him and so many others.
“It is really painful, and there are days of not wanting to get out of bed, to remain in the fetal position,” he said. “And then I hear Sam saying, ‘Get up and do good.’”
That led him to create a foundation that supports aspiring winter sports athletes and encourages all athletes to focus as much on kindness and character as they do on competing and winning. On Oct. 10, 2015, Park City celebrated Sam’s life with a spectacular freestyle event.
This year on Oct. 10, led by the foundation formed to carry on his legacy, Park City celebrated Live Like Sam Day by encouraging donations to schools, sports teams and individual athletes, as well as with random acts of kindness. Social media was flooded with messages from ordinary people who never met Sam to the best athletes the U.S. Ski Team has ever produced.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin sent a video to the foundation encouraging people to find small ways to be kind, while Alpine legend (and two-time Olympic medalist) Lindsey Vonn posted a photo to her Instagram story that said, “Always be kind. Doesn’t take much, just smile and treat others as you want to be treated. In honor of Sam, who lost his life too soon.”
Freeskier David Wise, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, posted a video where he donated ski equipment to young athletes.
“I can’t say how excited I am to see people in the ski industry do this,” he said. “I think it’s so cool to honor a kid with so much vitality and so much joy and love for life and love for the people around him by continuing to pay it forward.”
Jackenthal was overwhelmed as messages came in the form of social media posts, pictures, videos and email. They were still arriving late Friday. There was a Twitter follower who vowed to take his children to a local hospital and hand out teddy bears, a couple who released balloons in Sam’s memory, a group who went to a grocery store to give thank you notes to the employees, and a $1,200 suite package donated by the Utah Grizzlies.
There was an email from a skier in England who thanked him for his efforts.
“I didn’t know Sam as I am British and that sort of news doesn’t come around back where I live, but I am a ski racer and by the looks of it have a similar attitude to that of what Sam had,” the email said. “I want to thank you for letting Sam live on because as I was reading about him, it made me remember all of the smiles that I have seen on people’s faces and it made me slightly more hopeful that humanity may actually be able to come together and celebrate each other. After all, time is luck.”
And then there was a message from the brother of one of the foundation’s scholarships.
“My little sister is a ski jumper and she just received one of the scholarships in honor of Sam and all I can say is thank you for continuing to let the amazing person that Sam was influence so many young dedicated athletes and help them get to where they want to be,” he wrote. “You are all incredible #livelikesam.”
The acts were moving, uplifting and a confirmation that Jackenthal did the right thing when he quit his job a year ago to focus on the foundation, which partners with organizations like the U.S. Ski Team, businesses, and independent donors to provide support and scholarships for young athletes with big dreams, while developing curriculum that addresses bullying and the need to develop character alongside those athletic skills.
For Jackenthal, it is what he clings to when the dark moments threaten to pull him under a sea of sadness.
“I feel like it’s a blessing that I get to spend every day with him, (albeit) in a very unorthodox way,” Jackenthal said. “We’re still business partners, doing good, helping others, and we’re starting to make a real difference in the community.”
He talks about the physical reminders in Park City and the work of the foundation, livelikesam.org, that is just beginning to take root.
“Whether it is physically seeing these things, or being involved in the foundation, it still feels like he’s still here in many ways,” he said. “We, his family, are as proud of him today as I’ve ever been.”
Correction: An earlier version referred to the Winter Sports School in Midway. The school is located in Park City. The story also referred to physical reminders of the foundation in Vail, Colorado, but those reminders are only in Park City.