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"The only big fear I have is not succeeding": Legally blind 15-year-old Jacob Smith shredding expectations in freeride skiing

Jacob Smith: The legally blind freeride skier
Jacob Smith: The legally blind 15-year-old freeride skier 13:01

In the world of skiing, there are two kinds of skiers. Those who like to stay on groomed runs and be guided gently around obstacles and those who like to ski the whole mountain and ski towards the obstacles, that is called free riding.

Man-made jumps, rails and half pipes are rejected in favor of the drops, jagged cliffs, and deep chutes created by mother nature.

The sport of freeriding took off in the 1990s and is now one of the fastest growing disciplines in skiing.

Given the risks inherent with the terrain, it attracts some of the bravest and most adventurous skiers in the world. But even among that group, 15-year-old Jacob Smith stands out. We thought you should see what he does, because he cannot.

  Big Sky, Montana

This is Big Sky, Montana – home to some of the steepest and most challenging ski slopes in the country.

Jacob Smith

And that is Jacob Smith who is blind. Three years ago, he was just 12 years old as he made his way to the top of the 11,000 foot high lone peak to ski down it.

Jacob drops into the Big Couloir – a narrow, rock-walled, 1,400 foot chute. That dot is him… making his way turn by turn. A wrong move can be catastrophic. The run has a 50-degree slope, which means if you slip down the couloir, there is little chance you can stop yourself.

Jacob Smith can be seen near the top right in this image of the Big Couloir

Jacob Smith: When you're standing at the top, you feel like if you move, you're gonna die.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And that's the moment most people would say, "You know what? Maybe not a good idea."

Jacob Smith: Yeah, but I'm kinda just, like, "Well, I'm already up here. So I've gotta make it (LAUGH) down somehow."

He did. And became the only legally blind athlete to ski the legendary run. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: How did you feel when you made it to the bottom?

Jacob Smith: Excited that I did it. I didn't crash. I thought it was awesome. And then-- I guess we made it four more times, so I just (LAUGH) wanted to do it again.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You were testing your luck that day.

Jacob Smith: Yeah.

  Jacob Smith

Jacob is still testing his luck and good sense. We met him in January at a junior regional freeride tournament in Big Sky. He's now 15 years old, competing against 40 other teenage daredevils, all of whom can see perfectly well. 

This time,  the background for all of the competitors' spectacular experiment with gravity was another triple diamond chute, appropriately named D.T.M.

Sharyn Alfonsi: DTM stands for...?

Jacob Smith: Don't Tell Mama. (LAUGH)

Sharyn Alfonsi: It is an insane run. Like, a 45 degree slope.

Jacob Smith: Yeah. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do the judges give you any slack for-- for being blind?

Jacob Smith: No. Zero.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you think they should?

Jacob Smith: No. I don't. I wanna be treated normal so I compete with other sighted skiers.

A representation of what Jacob can see on his runs

It's not an insignificant difference. We worked with his doctors and our graphic artist to show roughly what Jacob can see on a run. He has extreme tunnel vision – and no depth perception on top of that – it's blurry – his visual acuity is rated 20/800, four times the level of legal blindness. Think of the big E on the eye chart. He would need it to be blown up four times in order to see it from 20 feet away.  

So how does Jacob ski like this? His family keeps him on course.

On competition days, his little brother, Preston, patiently helps him hike to the top of the venue.  It's so high, the lifts won't take you there.

Then his father, Nathan, helps him get down.

Jacob has a two-way radio turned up high in his pocket. His dad is on the other end at the base, somehow, calmly, guiding him down.

Nathan Smith: It's on me to make sure I don't let him down, that I get him in trouble, you know, that I-- I have to guide him through narrower chutes or not go off a cliff.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You have to be his eyes.

Nathan Smith: Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And there can't be a delay? He can't say, "Are you sure, Dad?"

Nathan Smith: No.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Have-- have you ever missed it? Have you ever said, "Oh gosh, I forgot to tell him about that," or, "I didn't see that"?

Nathan Smith: Oh yeah, all the time. But his adaptation is pretty amazing.

  Nathan Smith

Sharyn Alfonsi: How much do you trust him?

Jacob Smith: I mean, enough to turn right when he tells me to. (LAUGHTER)

Andrew Smith: Jacob's just putting his all into my dad's voice. It's crazy, skiing, just listening to someone, "Turn there, turn there."

Sharyn Alfonsi: Could you ski like that?

Andrew Smith: It's like closing your eyes, basically. It would be so hard.

Jacob's siblings are all competitive skiers. Andrew is 17, Preston is 14 and Julia is 12.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do the other competitors know that he's blind?

Andrew Smith: Some do. But they always, like, announce it over the, um, intercom that, like, "Blind skier Jacob coming down the hill."

Andrew Smith: That's when everyone turns and looks. "Oh, it's a miracle. Look at him."

Sharyn Alfonsi: Would you know if you didn't know? 

Preston Smith: He's-- he's-- he's such a good skier for legally blind. Every-- everybody's, like "--No way."

Andrew Smith: They just get mad at him if he's in the way instead.

Julia Smith: If we tell anybody that he's legally blind, then nobody believes us. The just give us a bad look.

  Andrew, Preston and Julia Smith

Jacob was born with vision. Soon after he learned to walk, he was on skis. Family vacations were spent bombing down the trails in big sky with his family.

But it was back home, at their ranch in North Dakota, that an unexpected obstacle changed Jacob's life. He started getting headaches and began bumping into things. He was 8 years old.

Jacob Smith: I, like, ran into a wall or somethin'. And my mom saw. And then it was, like, two days after I went to the eye doctor . And he took one look at my eyes, looked at my mom, and then just asked, like, which hospital do you want," 'cause my optic nerve was swelling and bleeding.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you have any sense that things were going wrong up until that point?

Jacob Smith: No.

That day, Jacob was flown to the Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis where he underwent an emergency 12-hour surgery after an MRI revealed a cancerous brain tumor the size of a softball that was crushing his optic nerve.

Nathan Smith: It's the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. It looked like half his brain was a tumor.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So, at that point, you're not thinking, I'm worried he's gonna lose his vision? You're thinking, I'm worried--

Nathan Smith: I'm losing my child.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You're gonna lose your child?

Nathan Smith: "I'm gonna bury a kid."

In that first surgery, doctors removed enough of the tumor to relieve the pressure on Jacob's optic nerve to stop his vision from continuing to deteriorate.

Here he is leaving a message for his siblings a few days later.

Jacob in hospital: I miss you all a lot. I really, really do. My vision's getting better. I'm coming home and I'm really excited.

But Jacob would need three more major brain surgeries over the next three years – all before he was 12 years old. 

Each time, with an extensive rehabilitation.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you ever get down about it? 

Jacob Smith: Like, I did. But at the same time, I just-- prayed a lot.

Sharyn Alfonsi: When you were praying about it, were you praying, "This'll be over"? Were you praying, "I wanna get my vision back"? Or were you praying, "I'll stay alive"?

Jacob Smith: Just to let-- that I'll stay alive and that I'll get through it. And that's what happened.

Finally, in 2017, a course of radiation eradicated the cancer and Jacob got a clean scan. But his doctors said the radiation increased his lifetime risk of another brain tumor by up to 30%.

Nathan Smith: Right now the tumor that we originally targeted is gone. And-- you know, so far so good.

Sharyn Alfonsi: It doesn't sound like you've exhaled.

Nathan Smith: I don't think you ever exhale.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Because?

Nathan Smith: Because there's always the what if… You know, you-- when you get put into that situation that you never felt you ever shoulda been or expected, I don't think you're ever gonna exhale and go it's, we're done.


Sharyn Alfonsi: Whose idea was it to return to skiing?

Jacob Smith: Well, my dad's. (LAUGH)

Jacob Smith: So we came out here and we kinda just  tried it out. Everywhere I went skiing for probably the first year or two was with either my dad or a coach.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You taught your kids to ski, but you've never taught a blind child to ski.

Nathan Smith: No.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So you did not know what you were doing.

Nathan Smith: No.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So tell me about those early days.

Nathan Smith: Well at first everyone said, "Get a rope and a sign. And he's gonna be a blind skier and you're gonna guide him." Like-- I'm like, "Nope, that's not an option. We're not gonna do it that way."

Sharyn Alfonsi: Because why?

Nathan Smith: Because I'm not gonna let that define him. 

Father and son admit they are trying to carve their own path, sort of figuring it out as they go.  Jacob says he's learned to listen for danger, other skiers, the churning of a lift or icy conditions under foot.

And he says he remembers many of the runs from when he could see.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Can you feel your way down a run you didn't go on before you lost your vision?

Jacob Smith: I mean, yeah. I can. And I've done it. (LAUGH)

Sharyn Alfonsi: And how does it work out?

Jacob Smith: Uh, it's pretty scary. (LAUGH) And-- sometimes takes me a l-- little minute.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That's gotta be terrifying.

Jacob Smith: Uh, you get used to it. (LAUGH)

Sharyn Alfonsi: How many crashes were there in those early days?

Jacob Smith: (SIGH) I don't even think I can count that high.

When Jacob was 10, he shattered his femur in 60 places when he skied into a tree.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Are you not nervous that there's gonna be a catastrophic accident, that he could die doing this?

Nathan Smith: It's not the way I, like, envision life. I don't look for the reasons not to do things. I'm not gonna put him in something that I'm not going through first.  That  the consequences of falling are not going to be life-threatening. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: What are you fearful of?

Jacob Smith: The only big fear I have is not succeeding.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You're more afraid of not succeeding than you are of getting hurt?

Jacob Smith: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why is that?

Jacob Smith: Because I've already lost my vision, so a cou-- a couple broken bones and a couple more mishaps, I guess, isn't a big deal to me at all.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Clearly he's fearless. As a parent, are you not fearful?

Nathan Smith: He's not reckless. He knows his limitations.  I think he has the ability to ski anything on the mountain, but he's not gonna go try to do it by himself. Like, he wants to be with somebody who he trusts. He won't ski with people he doesn't trust.

Nathan said Jacob is cautious about skiing and competing on low visibility days – when he can see even less than usual. Still, he finds a way of keeping up with his siblings. They are an enviable pack on the mountain.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How-- do you see him being, like, super plugged into everything else, right, to the sounds? He was saying he, like, hears the lift, the snow–

Preston Smith: Yeah.

Andrew Smith: Oh yeah–

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you see? 

Andrew Smith: H-- his hearing is very, like-- he chooses what he wants to hear. (LAUGH) So–

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you mean? (LAUGH)

Andrew Smith: There's times at home where he'll be-- like, you could say his name a thousand times and he'll pretend (LAUGH) like he didn't hear one word. (LAUGH) But then skiing, it's, like, you could, like, flick and he'll, like, just turn, you know.

On competition day,  Jacob suits up and sends it, finishing 19th out of 41 competitors. For Jacob, success isn't about the trophy, it's about freedom. Showing others how to negotiate obstacles, even when you can't see them coming.

Jacob Smith: Honestly,  no matter what  gets thrown in front of you,  what kinda comes outta nowhere and-- strikes ya. Takes you off-guard a little bit,  there is always a way to conquer it. To adapt. To make it happen and still do what you wanna do.

Produced by Sarah Koch. Associate producer, Chrissy Jones. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Joe Schanzer.

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