At the starting line of the Cougar Open in Canby, Oregon, the freshman runner crouches confidently for the 1500-meter race.
He explodes at the crack of the starting gun, blazing down the chalk-striped straightaway.
Despite a strained calf and nasty cold, Jason Ernst picks up speed, eventually outpacing all but one competitor in his heat as he sprints toward a finish line he cannot see.
Unlike his competitors, Ernst, Clark business student and track and field athlete, is legally blind.
Diagnosed with Bilateral Optic Nerve Atrophy at the age of 1, the 20-year-old athlete cannot see objects beyond two to five feet in front of him. But his time of 4:48.25 on April 22 qualified him for the 2017 Paralympics Track and Field National Championships – a meet June 2-4 in Los Angeles, where qualifiers will then go on to represent Team USA at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships in London.
Although Ernst did not compete in the June event due to injury, he still hopes to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Ernst, a two-time All-American in high school from Mountlake Terrace, suburb north of Seattle, took second in state in the 400-meter in 2016, his senior year.
“I wanted to get noticed and wanted to have a chance to get to the top of the sport,” Ernst said. “And to have a recruiter approach me about the Paralympics and know more about me and my high school career felt good.”
Becoming a Penguin
Jeff Ernst, the athlete’s father, contacted Clark’s track and field and cross-country head coach Bob Williams to see about his son joining the team.
Williams, who’d never coached a visually impaired athlete, said he wanted to take the appropriate precautions surrounding the safety of Jason Ernst and other runners. Jason Ernst did not fall or run into anyone this year in both cross-country and track and field. He had minor collisions his freshman and sophomore year in high school.
Cross-country, with its rougher, sometimes more unpredictable terrain, can be more of a challenge than track, according to Williams.
“But as the season progressed, I noticed that he was running faster and getting better times and I complimented him and said he looked like he was gaining more endurance,” Williams said. “He said no, that he was remembering the track and it’s terrain better than before.”
Jason Ernst’s ability to compete at the college level with a visual impairment garnered respect and admiration from his team. It also inspired his teammates.
“He makes you want to work harder and do more,” track and field teammate Jason Underhill said.
Life at LIFFT
After high school, Jason Ernst applied and was accepted into the Learning Independence for Today and Tomorrow at the residential State School for the Blind in Vancouver, two blocks away from Clark.
LIFTT, a program for young adults 18 to 21 who have graduated high school, provides additional training to transition students to post-high school life and foster independence.
Essentially, Jason Ernst lives on his own, and shares a common area with other residents who are blind or visually impaired.
Cooking has been the biggest challenge, according to Jason Ernst.
“With my vision, it’s hard to gauge when the water is boiling,” he said. “I have to bend down and get real close to see if the water is bubbling, it has been quite a learning experience.”
LIFFT students deliberately spend most of their time unsupervised by staff. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to take personal responsibility for their day-to-day activities, according to Lori Pulliam, director of Transition for LIFTT.
A Hard Truth
Ernst comes from a family of athletes – his mom, Marit Ernst, a swimmer at Central Washington University, his dad, a standout basketball player in high school, and younger brother, Joshua Ernst, a baseball player at Mountlake Terrace High School.
Growing up, Jason Ernst wanted to be an NBA player, but he couldn’t track the ball and catch passes. In middle school, he reluctantly faced the limitations of his condition.
Jeff Ernst said it was a difficult conversation to have with his son.
“I told him that I don’t know what the plan is for you in life, but being a baseball or basketball player is not it,” Jeff Ernst said. “And there’s going to be something you can do, and we’ll find it, and it’ll be something that you can do really well.
Disciplined, determined and deliberate is how Jason Ernst approaches much, if not to everything he’s endeavored to do, according to his father.
Jason Ernst said his visual impairment drives him to succeed on the track and said his fear of someone else getting his spot pushes him.
“To make it to the highest level in a sport you have to have a single-mindedness, and a purpose,” he said.
As a business major, Jason Ernst said he either wants to own his own restaurant, or work for a major league baseball team. He likes statistics and can rattle off a statistic in most, if not all of sports.
For now, he is focused on his daily routine and returning to Clark’s track and field program. He’s been hired on as next year’s residential advisor at the LIFFT program, a position filled each year by someone who has completed one year of residency, according to Pulliam.
“I’m excited because it’s my first official job, but I also have the opportunity to help someone make the transition that I made and am still making,” Jason Ernst said.