Loeffler occasionally offers tips on stroke technique, but Snyder’s numberless hours in the pool — he started swimming competitively in St. Petersburg, Fla., at age 11 and was captain of the Naval Academy swim team in the 2005-06 season — have made that less necessary.
“Keeping good technique helps him stay straight and not pinball across the pool,” the coach said. Then he added the obvious: “But a lot can go wrong.”
Rushing to help
A lot went wrong last Sept. 7.
Snyder and another explosive-ordnance disposal specialist were escorting a patrol of Afghan soldiers in Kandahar province. One of their jobs was to identify areas likely to be booby-trapped, to read the landscape for suspicious signs. It was a “particularly bad neighborhood,” he recalled, with a path that led through an opening in a stone wall beyond which was a irrigation ditch — a prime spot for a bomb.
Snyder’s colleague cleared a path over the ditch with a metal detector. He and five other soldiers jumped across. An Afghan soldier farther back, however, decided the spot was too wide. Against instruction, he chose a narrower spot to jump. He landed on the pressure-plate detonator of a homemade bomb. He and a fellow Afghan behind him suffered “traumatic amputations” — their legs were blown off.
Snyder, at the rear of the patrol, saw the plume of smoke and dirt. He went forward to help. To prepare the wounded men for helicopter evacuation, he got a litter to carry one of the Afghan soldiers.
“A combination of a couple of things occurred,” he recalled, without obvious emotion. “I was rushing, and I took a 90-degree turn around a wall. I missed [spotting] a pressure plate. It was my fault. But I was rushing to help this guy.”
The second bomb detonated four feet in front of and below him. He fell to the ground, briefly lost consciousness, and then opened his eyes. He could still see out of the left one.
“I actually thought I was dead. I looked down and saw that I had my whole body. I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense. That’s probably wrong.’ ”
That reassuring survey of self was the last thing Snyder saw. As he was helped to the helicopter, walking under his own power, his vision failed. Perhaps a piece of debris in his severely lacerated face moved. No one is sure.
His next clear memory was waking up at the naval hospital in Bethesda. Six days after his injury and after a half-dozen operations, he was told that his retinas were destroyed and that he wouldn’t see again.
‘Don’t get cocky, mister’
Snyder describes himself as “a mediocre swimmer,” and not because he is blind. He’s small — less than 6 feet tall — and lacks the giant-limbed physique of a Phelps or Phelps’ Olympic teammate Ryan Lochte. As a club and high school swimmer, he gravitated to the long events — the mile and 1,000-yard in particular — because his size was less of a disadvantage and there wasn’t as much competition.
“I started swimming all the hard stuff just because I could get a better place,” he said. “It’s a little bit more about grit. There’s a little bit more of a mental game to it.”
Mental game. There’s still a lot of that.
He’s been told he doesn’t swim like a blind person, that he swims like a sighted person and that’s why he’s fast. Sometimes, in long practices, he forgets he is blind. But then he crashes.
“It’s like: ‘You’re still blind. Don’t get cocky, mister.’ ”
His best event, the 400-meter freestyle, will be Sept. 7, the anniversary of his injury.
“It’s going to be a pretty amazing experience to compete on that day. To me, it means I’ve conquered blindness. I won.” He paused.
“It shows everyone, and shows myself, that blindness is my homeostasis now. It is who I am now. It’s not something that people have to be worried about.”
He says it doesn’t really matter whether he wins or loses.