Fight On: Despite Being Blind from an Early Age, Jake Olson Won’t Quit
When Jake Olson dreams at night, he still has his sight. As he wakes up each morning, it takes a moment to remember that he’s blind. A hinderance, it may seem, is nothing more than extra motivation to realize his athletic dreams — from the football field to the golf course.
Olson was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the retina as a baby, taking his left eye. After years of treatment, doctors reluctantly decided they would need to remove his right eye, too. A crushing blow to the active, sports-loving 12-year-old, Olson’s parents weren’t sure how their son would react once the surgery was performed, leaving Jake in the dark.
“I was devastated for him,” said Cindy Olson, Jake’s mother. “He was always the happy-go-lucky kid, looking on the bright side of everything. I was worried he wouldn’t be the same.”
When Jake came home from the surgery and felt his way into the house for the first time, he understandably wasn’t himself. He plopped down onto the sofa and totally checked out. Under doctor’s orders, he was to stay home from school for at least a week. If those few hours were any indication, a week wouldn’t be enough time for the emotional healing.
However, the next morning, in an act of pure foreshadowing, Jake got up and told his mom that he was going to school.
“From this moment on,” said a rejuvenated Jake, “I can either lay around and feel sorry for myself or I can get up and do what I want with my life.”
TROJAN FOR LIFE
Staying true to his word, Jake has already filled his brief lifetime with a catalog of experiences that may seem impossible for one without sight.
About a month before he lost his vision for good, Jake made it clear that he wanted to see one last USC Trojans football game, his beloved team.
Enter Pete Carroll. The former Trojan coach learned of Jake’s story and got in touch with the Olson family. Not only was Jake able to see one last game at the Coliseum, but during the week leading up to it, he went to practice and was shown around the facility. He instantly became one of the fellas, chumming it up with Trojan legends Matt Barkley, Taylor Mays and Matt Kalil.
“Coach Carroll embraced Jake and provided the perfect distractor,” said Brian Olson, Jake’s father. “The experience put everything else out of his mind. It was the right dose of medicine for the 4-5 week period before his eye would be removed.” To this day, Jake believes Carroll’s generosity helped him get through that tough period and propelled him to where he is today.
“It’s the single greatest act of graciousness,” said Jake. “It’s something I’ll never be able to repay coach for. It would have been easy to lose my mind with the hopelessness of the situation, but he helped me have fun and forget about the inevitable.”
From then on, Jake became an honorary member of the USC football team. Olson and Carroll remain in touch; Jake has also been on the Seattle Seahawks’ sidelines multiple times. He even learned how to play long snapper from Seattle’s Clint Gresham and earned a starting spot on his Orange Lutheran High School varsity team, opening the door for Jake to walk on at USC in 2015.
This past season during USC’s opening game against Western Michigan, Jake finally saw the field. With the Trojans leading 48-31, Jake’s number was called. He jogged onto the playing surface and, in true form, completed a perfect snap in a live game. “It’s still all a blur,” said Brian. “Seeing Jake smile on the big screen is what I’ll remember the most. I could say I never expected something like this, but I’d be lying because this is Jake after all.” The crowd went bonkers as the Trojans mobbed No. 61. The bronze-haired Huntington Beach native was a hero — proudly holding the Trojan sword high.
“Are you kidding me?”
That was, perhaps, the all-too-audible reaction triggered by the astonishment of seeing a 300-yard tee ball missiled down the middle of the first fairway … by someone who can’t see. At all.
“That should be good,” Jake commented to his father.
“Sure was!” I cracked, unsolicited.
I had known Jake for roughly 15 minutes, and he had already performed one of the most jaw-dropping athletic feats I’d ever witnessed.
While Jake has made a name for himself on the gridiron, he also wants to create a legacy on the golf course. A lifelong golfer who grew up playing Desert Willow in Palm Desert, where his parents own a condo, and SeaCliff CC in his hometown Huntington Beach, Jake may have lost his sight, but not his love of the game. That passion was never more evident than on that Saturday afternoon at SeaCliff, where I joined this mythical blind golfer, who supposedly hits drives a country mile, and had the short game to boot, for a friendly walk around the lot.
After a full range session, Jake strolled up to the tee box and showed me the way by pounding his drive down the center-cut line of the fairway, setting him up to get onto the par-5 first hole in 2.
As we walked to our balls, mine some 30 yards behind Jake’s, we started talking about life, golf and school. I asked how he dealt with getting his diagnosis.
“It was scary and I was in shock at first,” he said. “I found myself on the golf course, trying to close my eyes and hit a ball. I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, what am I going to do?’ I tried to put in perspective what my life was going to be like.”
We took a break from the chat so Jake and his caddie, also known as his father, Brian, could ponder the approach. Not being able to see trouble on the golf course could certainly be considered a positive in Jake’s situation, which is exactly why they decided to pull the 3-wood.
It didn’t take long to come to the realization that I was about to get trounced by a blind dude. Maybe I’d wait until after the round to ask if he’d like to be my ringer in the next Saturday skins game.
Jake, his father and I were joined on the course by his roommate Daniel, his friend Chase, and the best looking of the entire crew, Quebec, the lovable yellow Labrador Retriever who never leaves Jake’s side.
With Quebec unleashed and frolicking in the tall rough, weeds and tree lines — helping me look for my errant drives — Jake pressed on in championship mode. He and his father have mastered a routine, something they’ve perfected since his competitive high school golfing days.
“It’s complex, yet simple at the same time … like golf itself,” said Brian. “It’s not just getting the club set up for him, it’s helping him really feel and sense how it’s happening and the shot he wants to hit. “Early on it was like trying to brush your teeth with your left hand. It took some time to perfect.”
Before each full shot, Brian and Jake discuss their strategy, with professional lingo and high-golf IQ oozing. After they’ve decided on the shot, Brian tees up Jake’s ball, physically sets his entire body square to the target, sets his club face and steps away like someone lighting fireworks.
Jake does the rest.
These two have developed such trust and rapport that it’s hard for someone else to take over caddie duties. Just ask his mom, Cindy, who filled in for Brian during a high school match and learned the hard way.
During the match, one of Jake’s tee shots landed just short of a par-3. Cindy was diligently doing her job, pacing off how far to the pin, but forgot that providing accurate information is just as crucial as setting him up.
“Well, I failed to mention that there was a sand trap in front of the green,” chuckled Cindy. “So naturally he chips it right into the trap and I give him the news … ‘What sandtrap?!’ he yelled.”
That’s how the day went with mom looping for him.
“Later I was putting his club back in his bag, or so I thought,” said Cindy. “I just heard Jake say ‘Mommmm, that’s not my bag!’ Sure enough, he was right. You just don’t take these things into account when you can see. He has a sense for it all.”
ONE OF THE GUYS
Back on the course, Jake continued to impress. I began to somewhat understand how Jake was hitting his full shots pure, but my mind continued to explode after each touch shot found its way near the hole.
“As soon as I lost my sight, I had to tap into my feel,” said Jake. “All these guys on TOUR have great touch. I grew up watching Tiger and Phil, two of the best. So it’s something I had before I went blind.”
“You can’t teach feel and instinct,” said Brian. “The feet are more accurate than the eyes. He’s developed this skill for feeling out the breaks on the greens. He sees the breaks better than I do.”
Jake prowls greens feeling for apexes and valleys, while consulting with his father. Brian will tap on the flagstick to give Jake an idea of where his target is, and set up the putter head behind the ball, but the rest is all Jake. It’s this short game that can take him to the top of the blind golf ranks. And that’s exactly what he plans to do.
“I just want to become the best I can be,” Jake said. “I want to be the first blind golfer on the PGA TOUR. But first things first; I want to compete in the blind U.S. Open.”
The United States Blind Golf Association runs a U.S. Open Blind Golf Championship every year and unfortunately it usually lines up with the USC spring football game, leaving Jake unable to attend.
“Once his football career is over after next year, golf events will take precedent,” Brian said. “He wants to bring more attention to the blind-golfer tour worldwide. Maybe he can win, too, while he’s at it.”
After watching Jake play in person, I couldn’t be more certain of his skill and inevitable success. But what stood out more than anything was his attitude and sense of humor.
“It’s a choice he makes every day,” said Cindy. “He decides each morning that he’s going to get up and do the things that he wants to do.”
Jake is just one of the guys, evidenced by the joyful smile and howling laugh when Quebec leaped into the cart, onto Daniel and Chase, and decided he wasn’t moving for the rest of the round.
“He’s just a normal guy,” Brian said. “He’s a stupid college kid doing funny stuff. Once these guys understand that he has a sense of humor, it enables everyone to treat him like the normal kid that he is. Jake doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him.”
Before we went our separate ways, I asked Jake, a pseudo-celebrity at this point, what his coolest experience has been in the past few years. Without hesitation, he said it was getting to know one of his heroes.
“Tiger Woods sent me a letter after my snap in the Western Michigan game,” said a beaming Jake. “He told me that he was really proud of my courageousness and he even made time to meet with me at the Genesis Open.” Jake hopes to get in a round with Tiger in the future.
Woods ended his congratulatory letter with two words that are both the USC Trojans Fight Song, and something that Jake decides to do every morning: Fight On.