A blind photographer's road to the Special Olympics World Games

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Jensen supporting Special Olympics from behind a camera (1:59)

After a stroke left him legally blind at age 11, David Jensen picked up a camera. Now he's just finished up a stint as an official photographer at the Special Olympics World Games. (1:59)

As a young child, David Jensen dreamed of NBA stardom. All he thought about was basketball -- and then one day, his life was upended.

Born with a developmental disability and epilepsy, Jensen underwent brain surgery to help alleviate seizures, but during the procedure, he had a stroke. The then-11-year-old awoke legally blind -- with only 20 percent vision in his left eye and none in his right. He thought his future as an athlete was shattered.

Over the next weeks and months, Jensen had to learn how to walk, talk and even eat again. Although those skills slowly returned, he vision didn't, and the athlete inside of him remained devastated. "I didn't know who I was anymore," he said. "I was just so depressed because the only identity I had before was a basketball player."

That's when a therapist suggested Special Olympics, an organization that gives athletes with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to play sports. Tennis was the first available option, so Jensen gave it a try. Initially, he couldn't properly track the movement of the ball, but he adapted quickly. "My tennis coach did more for me in those weeks than the therapist did over, like, a month," he said.

Within a year, he says he had won a gold medal at a Special Olympics competition -- a sign of renewed athletic prowess. "Tennis, in that regard, saved my life," Jensen said.

In 2015, Jensen barely missed out on the U.S. team for the Special Olympics World Games, a global event that showcases top athletes. Still, he traveled all the way from his home outside Denver to Los Angeles to cheer on the friend who beat him for the spot. He took his camera with him.

While Jensen first remembers using a camera around age 5, after his stroke, he found that the viewfinder expanded his field of vision. But, down on the tennis courts in L.A., he was able to snap only a few photos before someone told him he needed an official credential.

"From that moment on," said the 29-year-old, "I wanted to go to the next [summer] World Games and shoot the other sports because telling stories is really what I want to do -- specifically for those who don't get heard."

Jensen has spent the past few years saving money for the trip to the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi -- which he finally embarked on last week. Since arriving, he's been darting all over the event, shooting images (two were published on ESPN.com) and meeting colleagues -- including Phil Ellsworth, a photographer for ESPN Images.

"[Jensen's] official photo vest is now [his] uniform," said Ellsworth, who initially saw an opportunity to mentor Jensen but soon learned that was hardly required. "I just needed to shut up and let him do his job."

For Jensen, photography is less about individual shots and more about the broader story and context in which they fit. "I see the sports arena as a canvas for Special Olympics athletes," he said. "The moment they take off from the blocks or take off with a swim, they are painting a live picture for an audience."

Lately, Jensen has put his sporting ambitions on hold in order to pursue a degree in communications at the Community College of Denver. He's aiming to graduate next spring and hopes to continue working as a photographer.

The next step, he says, is to build a website so that he can share this vision with the world.