Exactly one year after losing his sight on the battlefield in Afghanistan, Brad Snyder was in the pool at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
There the former U.S. Navy lieutenant went on to win three medals, including two gold, in his first Paralympic Games.
Snyder is favored to make the podium again in Rio de Janeiro. He finds competing against the top blind athletes from around the world a humbling experience.
“I’m rooting for them just as much as I’m rooting for myself,” Snyder said, knowing the stories of the swimmers in the lanes next to him. “Every athlete has overcome so much, and represents this idea that the human spirit is unconquerable.”
“Where does my energy come from? From the idea I can push my boundaries.” @BradSnyderUSA #BPTeamUSA #EnergyWithinhttps://t.co/zDsLFk83jE
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 26, 2016
Snyder lost his sight September 7, 2011, while running to aid two Afghan victims of a land mine. A specialist in bomb disposal, he stepped on one himself.
After the blast, Snyder remembers thinking he was dead. But the blast that threw him backward and took his eyesight spared his limbs.
Finding a way back to the pool
One thing remained constant during his recovery: swimming. “I felt so free, so liberated, so independent,” said Snyder, who had been captain of the U.S. Naval Academy’s swim team.
“There are some adaptations. I change the way that I recover my arms, so I drag my fingertips along the surface, looking for the lane line.”
While training for the 2012 Paralympics, he discovered a blind woman was swimming in the next lane. Turns out, she had been a triathlete before losing her eyesight. When she heard Snyder’s story from the local newspaper, she thought if he could do it, so could she. “She went back to doing something she loved because my article challenged her, I guess.”
In just a few months of training, Snyder qualified for the 2012 U.S. Paralympic team. But he wasn’t swimming just for himself. “I needed a way to show the community that I’m OK — I’m the same person I was.”
Snyder said friends would often say they were devastated by the news of his blindness. “But when I swim, people don’t see a blind person struggling with something — they see me succeeding.”
When Snyder heads to Rio from Baltimore, Maryland, his guide dog, Gizzy (who refers to Snyder as “Dad” on Instagram) will make the trip with him.
You can follow Brad Snyder on Twitter @BradSnyderUSA, and learn more about Paralympians at #WithoutLimits. Paralympic swimming will take place from September 8 to 17.