“There he is,” the coach said, and called to a man at the far end of the pool. “Brad, you’re two lanes over.”
As the swimmer moved along the wall at the shallow end back to the correct lane, Loeffler explained that his charge sometimes submarines under the lane line when sprinting the breaststroke. It wouldn’t happen if he weren’t pushing himself in the final weeks before the Paralympic Games in London.
And also if he weren’t blind.
Bradley Snyder is midway through a seven-event schedule at the Paralympic Games, which end Sept. 9. He won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle Friday and a silver in the 50-meter freestyle Saturday. A former captain of the U.S. Naval Academy’s swim team, Snyder never imagined he would be in this meet. Nevertheless, it marks his return to a sport that once helped define who he was, before bad luck changed everything.
In Afghanistan a year ago, a booby-trap bomb blew up in front of Snyder, a Navy lieutenant in an explosive-ordnance disposal unit. His face took the brunt of the blast. He now has two glass eyes.
As part of his rehabilitation, he got back into the swimming pool, where he had spent much of his high school and college years. Five months after the accident, he swam in a meet at the Olympic training center in Colorado. To his surprise, his times made him eligible for monthly stipends and travel expenses to national trials.
“It’s just kind of fed from there,” Snyder said. “The more success I’ve had, the more seriously I’ve taken it.”
He’s been training for the Paralympics at Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Baltimore, the natal pool of Michael Phelps. But Phelps isn’t the reason he’s there. Snyder has an internship at RedOwl Analytics, a tech start-up in Baltimore. Being in the city is part of his strategy to find a new path, as a blind person, at age 28.
In the water, that means preparing for hazards that sighted swimmers don’t give a thought to.
During practice, he wears basketball “shooting sleeves” to protect his arms from the lane lines, plastic disks strung on a cable that are painful to hit on the downstroke of freestyle or butterfly. However, he counts on brushing the lane line at least once every lap, a maneuver that gives him a sense of where he is. He counts strokes and knows how many it takes to get him to a wall 25 or 50 meters away.
Turning is especially tricky. In races, at the end of each lane there’s a person with a stick that has a rubber ball attached to the end. As the swimmer approaches the wall, the assistant taps his or her back with the stick at the exact moment the person should initiate a turn. That way the competitor can swim hard without fearing a crash into the wall.
“It takes a lot of trust,” said Loeffler, 43, who is the varsity swim coach at Loyola University of Maryland and a coach of the U.S. Paralympic team.