Brad Snyder still sees the pool spread out around him, vivid as ever, his blindness be damned, as sure as he can feel the water against his limbs. He sees the wake forming behind him as he churns through his lane and the black lines on the bottom and the bright colors of the lane lines, guiding him to the wall. When he really gets going, flying along at race pace, he can make himself forget he is blind. Those are the moments he lives for, the moments that carry him back, more than anything else, to his old life.
It’s not that Snyder, a 32-year-old Baltimore resident, is trying to escape his reality. His reality is that he is blind, having been wounded by an IED in Afghanistan in 2011 when he was a lieutenant in the Navy, and he is getting better every day at accepting and embracing that. His reality is that everyday life is more challenging now than it was before the injury. But in some ways, he has found, it is also richer.
“I have this golden opportunity in front of me,” he said one morning following another training session. “I’m going to embrace it wholeheartedly.”
The military man in Snyder has come to think of the quadrennial Paralympic Summer Games as deployments. In 2012, even as he was trying to make sense of this new, darkened world he had unwittingly entered, he was “deployed” to London, where he came back with two gold medals and one silver.
And this month, Snyder will deploy again, this time to Rio de Janeiro, for the 2016 Paralympic Games, where he intends to swim in six events, defend his two 2012 titles — in the 100- and 400-meter freestyles in the S11 category, for athletes who are completely blind — and perhaps steal a couple more across an assortment of butterfly, backstroke and individual medley events.
“I feel like I’m the best freestyler in the world,” said Snyder, who is, in fact, ranked first in the world at both 100 and 400 meters. “I want to back that up. I want to protect those events. I feel like those are mine to lose.”
While the 2016 Paralympic Games have been plagued by financial woes, which have forced organizers to slash budgets ahead of Wednesday’s Opening Ceremonies, none of the competitive events themselves will be affected, and a grass-roots campaign — called #FillTheSeats — to send Brazilian children to the Games for free recently received a boost when it was promoted in a tweet by the rock band Coldplay.
When he gets to Rio, Snyder will be considerably more prepared, both mentally and physically, than he was four years ago. In 2012, the London Paralympics came so soon after his injury that he barely had time to contemplate what his new life would look like.
Within two months of being wounded, Snyder, the former captain of the Naval Academy men’s swim team, was in a swimming pool for rehabilitation, and he found that his return to the water brought him closer to feeling like his old self than anything else. Within four months, he was being recruited to try out for the Paralympics — which, at the time, he had never heard of — and within five months he was swimming in his first sanctioned meet, posting a time in the 100 free that immediately ranked as fifth best in the world.
And on Sept. 7, 2012, the one-year anniversary of his injury, he won the second of his two gold medals in London.
Only afterward, back home again and without the intense training regimen to anchor his life, did Snyder have to come face to face with his new reality.
“That’s when I had to start to figure out who is Blind Brad,” Snyder said, “and who is Blind Brad going to be.”
In his mind, Snyder had prepared himself to lose a leg or even his life. They were risks he understood to be part of life as a lieutenant in a SEAL explosive-ordnance disposal unit. When he left for a mission, he made sure his belongings were in order and his bed was made, just in case. His careful preparations made no contingency for blindness.
On Sept. 7, 2011, he was with a joint Navy SEAL-Afghan Special Forces team sweeping an area in Kandahar province, looking for Taliban fighters and weapons. Snyder and a partner used metal detectors to find IEDs buried in the sand and chart a safe course through the minefield. But on this day, two of the Afghan personnel veered off course and triggered an IED, killing them both.
When Snyder went to help, he stepped on a secondary device, which exploded just in front of him. The brunt of the force from the blast was absorbed by his face. He underwent more than 100 hours of surgery over the ensuing weeks, but none of it could save his eyesight. He was told he would never see again, his damaged eyes replaced with glass ones. He was 27 years old.
“In the beginning, everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re so sorry,’ ” Snyder recalled of the initial reactions of friends and family. “People were crying. People were upset. And justifiably so — I came back looking like Frankenstein. But I didn’t like that everyone was so distraught and so messed up. I’m used to having a positive impact on people. I didn’t like that so many people were upset. Swimming in the beginning was a way to turn that on its head — like, ‘Look, I’m okay. I’m happy. I’m swimming again.’ ”
He characterized the 12 months from Sept. 7, 2011, to Sept. 7, 2012, as “very linear,” explaining: “Believe it or not, the steps were clearly illuminated for me once I decided to pursue the Paralympics. It was all explained to me: ‘You go to this meet. You go to [Paralympic] trials. You go to this camp.’ So I was in a rhythm I kind of understood.”
The end of the London Paralympics was the end of this linear phase. The next phase was nebulous and disjointed, frightening in a way the earlier phase was not.
“I had never actually sat down,” he said, “and thought about: Who am I now? What is my purpose? What does my career look like? What does dating look like?”
A critical first step in 2013 was adopting Gizzy, a German shepherd, as his guide dog. Along with his brother, Mitchell, he bought a house in the Baltimore neighborhood of Canton, a trendy district full of bars and restaurants and within walking distance of a handful of parks in which to walk Gizzy.
But the bigger decision was one of purpose. Snyder quickly realized he had a small measure of fame, as a Paralympic champion with an inspirational story, and thus a platform. Though he had applied for a couple of jobs in Washington following the London Games, he failed to land either, and eventually he pivoted: He would give the Paralympics one more go — for 2016 in Rio — and use his own story both to make a living and to inspire others. He became, in effect, a professional athlete.
“I had this opportunity sitting here, and I largely ignored it because I was trying to make something else happen,” he said. “I had this other image in my mind of what I needed to be, based largely on what my peers were doing. At that stage, most of my peers had gone to business school, and they were all consultants and working at Google or working at Uber. I thought I needed to fit that mold, damn it. But . . . there was an opportunity out there I needed to embrace. I needed to make this pivot. I don’t need to be this person I thought I needed to be. I don’t need to move to D.C. I like it here in Baltimore.”
A few years later, Snyder is now a sought-after motivational speaker, as well as a published author — he wrote “Fire in My Eyes,” which will be published this month, on a laptop specially adapted for the blind. He has seven sponsors, including Baltimore-based Under Armour, as well as a small army of friends and coaches who would do anything to help a man who has given them all so much inspiration.
“He’s unbelievable — his attitude, his work ethic. He’s just a machine,” said Brian Loeffler, the Loyola University head swimming coach, who also trains Snyder at the campus recreation center. “You can’t help but be inspired by him.”
Loeffler shared his favorite moment from London, the one that, more than any other, illuminated Snyder’s unbreakable spirit. And it didn’t happen in the pool — it happened in the “mixed zone” behind the pool, where athletes encounter a gauntlet of media personnel shouting questions.
“The foreign writers were almost baiting him, trying to get him to say something negative,” Loeffler recalled. “One of the guys says, ‘Do you hold any ill will against the people who planted the bomb that detonated in your face?’ I’m standing there like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ But Brad was as cool as you can be. He said, ‘Look, they believe what they believe in. We believe in what we believe in. We’re pushing democracy, and it’s unfortunate that those are the circumstances they have to survive within.’ ”
Though Snyder has mastered the major challenges of life as a blind man, he gets frustrated at what he calls the “gross inefficiencies”: the way once-simple, mindless tasks, such as applying toothpaste to a toothbrush, now require so much more attention, focus and, quite often, clean-up.
“That bothers the [expletive] out of me,” he said. “It’s always a mismatch of expectations. I get really upset when I break a dish when I’m doing the dishes — because this used to be so easy. Washing the dishes would be this mindless task — boom, you do it, and you’re done. Or the cupboard door is open, and I bang my head into it. The frustration boils up, and then it goes away.”
Gross inefficiencies happen in the pool, too, as when he veers into a lane line — a frequent occurrence — and slams his hand into the hard plastic. (He wears protective sleeves to lessen the effect.) Once, at a major international meet, he wound up turned around and backpedaled into the wall, losing nearly four full seconds on the field — but he made up the time and still won.
As Snyder’s coach, part of Loeffler’s job is to minimize gross inefficiencies, illustrated most vividly by his role as Snyder’s “tapper.” As S11 swimmers approach the wall, the tapper stands on the deck holding a long stick with a tennis ball attached to the end and smacks the swimmer on the small of the back, which is the swimmer’s signal that it is time to make a flip-turn.
“When he flips off the wall, ideally he’s in the center of the lane,” Loeffler said. “We spend a lot of time making sure we get that timing and technique down.
This fall, when Snyder returns from Rio, the transition almost certainly will be smoother than it was after London. He hasn’t ruled out a run at a third Paralympic Games, in Tokyo in 2020, when he will be 36.
“When I come back from Rio, those decisions will be kind of illuminated,” he said. “Whether it’s [training for] Tokyo or not, there will be something. Maybe building a company. Maybe starting a family. Things that are of equal intensity as going to the Paralympics but things I haven’t done. One way or another, I’ll definitely have something on the horizon.
“These last few years have represented me finding out who I am now, understanding my place in the world, understanding my purpose and understanding the impact I can have — by sharing my story and inspiring people to go after their battle with adversity with courage. My new niche in the world is somewhere in there.”