No matter what place Brad Snyder finishes in the 400-meter freestyle Friday, he will come out of the pool a winner.
Exactly one year ago, on Sept. 7, 2011, Navy Lt. Snyder lost his sight when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) while on military duty in Afghanistan. Today, however, he will be swimming for another Paralympic medal in London. He already has won a gold medal in the 100 and earned silver in the 50.
On the anniversary of his injury, he will compete in the 400, what he calls his primary event, and he will show the world how much of a transformation he has made from being a wounded warrior to becoming a world-class athlete.
He said he has "reconciled" becoming blind is by putting his injury into perspective. He is able to swim competitively, even though some of his friends have not been so fortunate. In fact, he is reminded of the military's losses each day as he has a tattoo on his chest commemorating the loss of one of his fallen comrades.
"I'm still here," said Snyder, 28, a diver in the U.S. Navy for six years. "I have a lot of friends who didn't make it back and were boarded up on C17s to be buried in Arlington. I'm not buried in Arlington. I'm here in London competing."
Snyder began swimming competitively when he was 11 and became a star swimmer in high school in Florida. He then went to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he became captain of his swim team. He vividly recalls watching Tom Dolan winning the 400 IM at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, but never expected to be competing in international competitions himself.
But swimming has proven to be the ideal way for him to make a comeback from his injury and to continue to serve his country. Snyder is one of 20 service members and veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces who are competing in the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Snyder vividly recalls being injured in Afghanistan. He said he was coming to the aid of other people who were hurt in an IED blast when he stepped on another IED a mere 10 meters away from the first one. Although he was able to walk away from the incident, and was relieved to realize he had all four of his limbs, he knew he received major injuries to his face. He was taken via helicopter to receive medical treatment and placed in a medically induced coma. When he woke up, he saw his family.
Initially, he was treated in Bethesda, Md., but then was transferred to the VA Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Members of his hometown community had always known Snyder as a swimmer, so he figured, "If I got back in the pool, I would show them that I'm OK."
At first, he began swimming using noodles and tethers. Five weeks after his injury, however, he said he was swimming laps. In February, he competed in his first swim meet in six years at the 2012 Jimi Flowers Classic Meet at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. During the meet, he caught the eye of a coach named Brian Loeffler, who coaches the swim team at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
Loeffler had coached another blind swimmer, Philip Scholz, in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and tried to contact Snyder and his coach via the internet simply to urge him on and to offer any guidance with the Paralympic Movement.
Loeffler said he didn't have any luck making the connection, but as fate would have it, Snyder wound up coming to Baltimore for an internship at RedOwl Analytics. Loeffler was contacted to help coach Snyder, and now the two are in London winning medals at the Paralympic Games.
"I still think we have some amazing performances ahead," Loeffler said.
Snyder said making the transition to swimming as a blind athlete has been relatively easy since he has jumped off the start blocks hundreds of times in his life. But he has encountered new experiences, mainly learning how to handle the mind games played in the ready room, the room where athletes wait before they swim, and with learning how to find out where he finished in a race.
He said that the Navy inadvertently prepared him for being able to swim blind because in his training as a diver he often had to wear blackout masks and swim through dark areas where it was virtually impossible to see.
"I joke with my Navy buddies that this is not the first time I have to do these things," he said.
But nothing could prepare for the amount of crowd noise he would encounter at these Games.
"I don't get nervous very easily," he said. "I kind of pride myself in my stoicism and my ability to use my experience in the Navy to stress manage. But I got incredibly nervous the first time I came out in front of that crowd.
"It's a very, very humbling experience to stand in front of that many people and keep the distraction out and perform the way you want to so both times I hopped out in front of the blocks it was definitely a challenge to mitigate that distraction and do what you want to."
He also has tried to learn how to gauge how he performed by listening for his teammates' voices when he touches the wall.
Often, he does that and still has no clue whether he placed first or last.
"It's like, so what happened?" he said.
But as soon as he finished the 100 in London, he said he heard his teammates.
"They went nuts," he said. "I thought, 'Well, they're not going to be that excited for fourth place.' "
He was right. He had won the gold. As he put it, the win has been "an in the clouds experience".
Back home in Florida, his family and friends have been following his successes anyway they can, be it through the Internet (you can follow Paralympic results at www.USParalympics.org) or even through streamed coverage that had been projected onto TV screens in local bars. He even said some of his friends planned their work schedules around his swims.
His swim on Friday likely will be must-see TV. On Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. EDT, NBC Sports Network will air a one hour highlight special on the London 2012 Paralympic Games. NBC will also broadcast a 90 minute special from 2-3:30 p.m. EDT on Sept. 16.
He didn't like the fact that he was "benched" from his military team a year ago.
Now he finds himself part of another U.S. team.
"Swimming has become a way that I can garner the relevance and success I used to gain from my service," he said. "Now I do it in the pool … to be able to once again get back in the fight."
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.
Sean P Eagan
Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans