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Fighting On

When Jake Olson lost his eyesight at 12, giving up was never an option. Now, about to graduate from USC, he looks back on a multitude of victories 

May 09, 2019
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There was never really any question about which university he’d attend. “The Trojan family has played a huge role in my life for the last 10 years,” says William Jacob “Jake” Olson ’19. The only other university he applied to was Harvard, but when he was tapped by USC for an athletic scholarship before he’d finished applying, he set that application aside and never looked back.

As a baby, Jake Olson lost sight in his left eye due to a rare cancer of the retina. Although doctors tried throughout his childhood to save what remained of his eyesight, they eventually conceded that they would have to remove his right eye as well. Olson was 12-years old.  

Back then, Trojan football fans already knew the story of the towheaded, bespectacled little boy who attended every game with his family. And then-coach Pete Carroll  knew that more than anything, Olson wanted to watch the Trojans play just one more time before undergoing the surgery that would render him blind. Carroll made the call to let Olson run with the players through the tunnel onto the field at the LA Coliseum, watch practice, and later mingle with the players in the locker room. The experience changed his life.

"There was literally no place better for me to spend my college years than at USC.”—Jake Olson '19

He refused to let his blindness get in the way of his athleticism. He played on his high school football team as a long snapper, and developed an enviable handicap in his golf game.

Once he matriculated at USC’s Marshall School of Business in 2015, Olson had grown up. Now 6 foot 4, he was a presence on campus, looking every bit the handsome college jock that he is...his guide dog Quebec always at his side.

And while it was true he was already something of a celebrity on campus, he still had to deal with routine challenges all freshman have to face—only without his eyesight.

Figuring out where his classes were, for example, is a seemingly small thing that vexes every new student. “As colleges go, at least USC is sort of laid out on a city grid,” he said. “But there were plenty of times I didn’t know where I was and didn’t have any friends around to help. I managed.”

But some experiences were anything but ordinary. When he arrived on campus, with the help of a Swim With Mike scholarship, he also was granted a waiver by the NCAA to suit up and join the Trojan football team as a walk-on long snapper.

In 2017 Olson walked onto the field as a long snapper and helped the Trojans beat Western Michigan in a thrilling 49-31 game.

Not everyone’s most memorable college moment makes world headlines.

https://news.usc.edu/86178/just-a-fan-no-more-although-blind-jake-olson-joins-usc-football-team-as-long-snapper/

Where do you go from there? Not surprisingly, Olson was drawn to high-stakes entrepreneurship, aligning himself with the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Performance Science Institute.

The company he and roommate Daniel Hennes launched—Engage—a platform that digitizes the process of booking talent, was the first Trojan company to receive funding from USC Marshall’s Venture Fund.

“Starting a company while in school has been challenging but also validating,” said Olson. “The lessons I’m learning from running Engage supplement what I’ve learned in my classes. Like, ‘Oh! OK, that’s what they were talking about…”

But with graduation upon him, he isn’t wondering what the next chapter will be. Making branding deals, talking to production companies, growing his company, maintaining his speaking schedule—even just working on his golf game: Jake Olson has plenty to keep him busy.

As he stands ready to graduate (with his twin sister, Emma, a Dornsife English major), he acknowledges that USC was the only place for him to be.

“I’ve been feeling the love of the Trojan family for more than a decade,” he said. “It goes beyond 2015 for a thousand miles. There was literally no place better for me to spend my college years than at USC.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “ the stars align.”

Jake Olson and Dean James G. Ellis

The Graduate (and Quebec)

Jake Olson accepts his diploma from Marshall Dean James G. Ellis. Dave Belasco, executive director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies holds a mock diploma for Olson's guide dog, Quebec.

(Photo: William Vasta)

Jake Olson and Dean James G. Ellis

The Graduate (and Quebec)

Jake Olson accepts his diploma from Marshall Dean James G. Ellis. Dave Belasco, executive director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies holds a mock diploma for Olson's guide dog, Quebec.

(Photo: William Vasta)