IN the winter of 2013 a teenager stood on a snowcapped mountain and breathed.
Patrick Jensen - short, slim, straw-red hair, beanie pulled down - was a kid from Birmingham Gardens, among other things. Junior runner, yeah. Surfer, skater, sure. Those still heavy words, "legally blind".
Now, in the snow gums and the Perisher glare, he'd find out if he was a skier. He pushed off, with a scrape. The mountain blurred. One day he'd be an Australian medal hope, but he was about to get hit.
That a skier slammed into him, and somehow he didn't fall, isn't Jensen's sharpest recollection of that day. It's his gear. The rental boots and the borrowed clothes.
"And these horrible little skis," he laughs.
"I'd never use them, now. But I didn't know any different."
The family's single-storey home is on a sloping street in Birmingham Gardens. Three dogs leap from the porch in a sort of barking arrowhead and a cat blinks a milky, sightless eye.
"That's Bob," says Jensen, 19, shushing the dogs.
"He ran away one day and came back six years later."
Patrick "Blinky" Jensen is pale with blue eyes that give off the effect of peering through you. He's in skinny black jeans and a long black tee.
‘‘Until then I was a clumsy kid who ran into things. They gave me reading glasses. It’s just black spots, blackness, and what I can see isn’t clear. It’s like being under water.’’
A "Blinky" is ski racer slang for a blind athlete. He's embraced it.
"Like we call the sit skier 'gimps'," he explains. "It's just a shit-stir."
Some of the house's carpet is ripped up from the April storm, and there is an imposing array of guitars. Jensen drums in heavy band George Booth ("You guys are f - - - en sick," reads a Facebook review). The house soundtrack is the occasional strum of a guitar, or a teenager munching cereal. His younger sister Amelia has a pet ferret which is let out, intermittently, to dart around.
A few blocks away is an underpass with a blaze of graffiti where Jensen goes to skate. It's echoey with a metal barrier at one end. It's a stormy morning and, when a guy rides through on a bike, he clangs into the barrier. Jensen snakes through on his board, trailing his cane like a rudder.
His left biceps is stamped with a tattoo of a Lego version of himself on a skateboard holding a cane, but it's not all for his benefit, that cane. It's for ours. Drivers give him a berth when they see it, perhaps picturing the headlines that would come with hitting a blind kid.
No, Jensen has 70 per cent sight in his left eye, but his right is 70 per cent blind. The line-up of suspects includes rod-cone dystrophy, which shuts down the eye's photoreceptors. Specialists knew something was up when he was seven.
"Until then I was a clumsy kid who ran into things. They gave me reading glasses," he says.
"It's just black spots, blackness, and what I can see isn't clear. It's like being under water."
It'll get worse. Now and then he'll realise he's lost a detail that used to be there, a sharpness in a thing that has evaporated.
Jensen's mum, Margaret, was "gutted" by the diagnosis. His dad Erik, too. School was hard. "We held fears for his happiness, his education, his independence. Everything," Margaret says.
"He was never really an outgoing person, and I think it was hard to establish friendships. He couldn't recognise faces. People mistook that for him being unfriendly."
They still do, says Jensen. Without the details in faces, you wait for others to do the greeting. And they're waiting for you.
"It came across like I wouldn't say 'hey' to anybody. Now I just plod around saying 'hey' to anyone."
We're in Gloria Jean's at Stockland Jesmond, now, with Jensen nursing his skateboard at the table. He suggested the meet-up by text, which seems odd, until he pulls out a phone that magnifies sentences, a word at a time.
Amelia, his sister, cried about his diagnosis. Sean, who's older, was quiet. The brothers agree that they miss playing video games. Jensen will never drive a car. Team sports like rugby league are out of the question.
Newcastle musician Matt McLaren, who is blind, was someone who "got it". He and Jensen began meeting to talk and jam with their instruments, and it helped. Not because of anything McLaren said, specifically, but "by him being a good guy".
Still Jensen skated, alone, for hours, until his feet prickled hot. At high school he broke free some days and surfed at Nobbys, then Diamond Beach near Forster, where everything blurred under water. He won state ribbons for his running, where the world narrowed to a lane. The local papers took photos. He got bored. A Disabled Winter Sport expo, one day, offered winter sports. Could he snowboard? That was full. Skiing, then? He signed up.
A BLIND skier doesn't ski alone. If he did he wouldn't last long in Jensen's events, the downhill and the super G. Every skier has a guide, and Jensen's is Kirsty O'Sullivan. Visually impaired skiers are graded by acuity, from B1 (completely blind) to B3 (partially-sighted, like Jensen).
That first run - where Jensen hit a skier - turned heads. He kept his balance, his composure, bent his knees how he should; the things coaches look for. It set him on a fast orbit of the world's finest slopes.
When Australia's Paralympic alpine coach Christian Geiger wanted skiers to train in Austria and the US last November, he took Jensen and O'Sullivan.
Austria was the making of Patrick Jensen, serious skier. As author and Fairfax Media journalist Malcolm Knox noted, if you sat far enough from the television to watch the Sochi medal count, we became Austria and weren't doing too badly. That's the only way you'd confuse the two. An hour's sun can stir Kosciuszko slick and patchy but Stubaier Gletscher, where Geiger took Jensen and O'Sullivan, is a place of timber chalets and spruce trees and silence. The alps cut the clouds in walls of white and shadow.
Before Austria, Jensen had skied for two weeks, total. He'd lived at home. O'Sullivan - 22, blonde, Colgate smile - stepped up with big-sisterly diligence. The trip photos are a catalogue of white teeth and parkas and Santa hats at Christmas.
"We travelled for four months together," says O'Sullivan.
"I was his guide, 24-7. I took him to the supermarket, helped with his washing. We spent a lot of time together on and off the snow."
The relationship between skier and guide is symbiotic. They have to be similar-sized - so they match in aerodynamics - and share a trust that borders on clairvoyance. It can take years. O'Sullivan has skied most of her life, but not everyone can guide.
"I have to try to keep him in a bubble that's the extent of his vision, she" says. "It's my job to figure out how far he is behind me and push myself, because I'm pushing an athlete to go faster. But I have to stay within his vision."
Talk is key. O'Sullivan chirps rhythmically, chantingly to Jensen on the slopes, a fluoro beacon charting a course, forecasting fluctuations in the snow. They hit 70km/h. Stretch the sensory bubble and it breaks.
Shaun Pianta, a West Australian who skied with Jensen in the northern winter, snapped both legs in a fall. His shins, by all accounts, bent the wrong way. It's not something Jensen dwells on.
"I get pumped and I know this is the part where the fear is meant to be, but it just doesn't come," he says. "To me, it's a rush. I've always been like that, I guess."
When a vision-impaired athlete loses trust in his legs it's career-destroying, says Geiger, who doesn't think that will happen with Pianta. Still, it happens.
"That's where we enlist a sports psychiatrist," he says. "There are able-bodied athletes I've worked with who never recover their confidence."
Geiger was one of Australia's best skiers until a car crash in 2009. He suffered injuries to his liver, spleen and brain, was placed in a coma, and missed the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He'd been 30 metres from home.
The Paralympics offered a way back, and he guided Victorian Jessica Gallagher to bronze in the giant slalom on the final day at Sochi. Geiger says much of coaching is managing fear. Jensen has a rare lack of it, but there's work to do.
"He mentally knows where his body is, he's very fit, his strength is surprising for quite a small guy, and he has a willingness to go fast," says Geiger.
"He's pretty relaxed, but we'll be challenging him to become more resilient. In those fight-or-flight situations, on the days the weather isn't great and things aren't going well, I want him to give me some fight."
Geiger is stingy with praise, says O'Sullivan.
"It's kind of good, because he won't tell you everything is awesome," she says.
"A lot of athletes get to this level being told how well they've done, and that's not what they need."
The coach thinks Jensen can win a medal at the 2022 Olympics. Wouldn't waste his time if he didn't, he says.
"We ideally want to invest in people who are medal contenders."
Jensen hasn't heard this, and there is a silence.
"I don't know how it makes me feel," he says, eventually, down the phone. He's on his way to the gym. "It makes me want to work harder, probably. So they'll think I'm a chance in 2018."
AUSTRALIA'S winter Olympians, the able-bodied ones, tend to be eccentric or wealthy. A few carve out careers that land somewhere between Olympic ecstasy, speaking circuit popularity and utter futility. Then there are the winter Paralympians.
Margaret Jensen says she and Erik spent $20,000 last year on Patrick's skiing, and it'll be about the same this year. They can't keep doing it.
"I think he thinks it grows on trees," Margaret laughs.
He doesn't, quite. He knows his training overseas alone cost $7000, and all the gear adds up. Jensen started renting a room in Jindabyne in June - Erik drove down to settle him in - and he skis every day. When the winter camp starts, he'll ski three hours a day and spend two in the gym. He wants the most out of his body. O'Sullivan squeezes her job as a resort ski instructor around their training. It's exhausting, but she's there. A blast of polar air mid-July left a blanket of fresh snow across the valley. Jensen gets up every day at 6am. And he just got another tattoo.
"It's the balance of life, between skiing and surfing and life in general," he says, of the swirling wave-sunbeam on his wrist.
"It's a yin-yang."
Surfing will have to wait until summer, but he's packed his skateboard. In a way, he says, that board taught him how to ski.
"I can feel the different surfaces, the turns and the vibrations, through my feet," says Jensen. "It's how I see."
That feeling is how he navigates the underpass back home, sunnies on, cane scraping, without fear of what he can't do, wrapped up in what he can.