Blinded in Afghanistan, Navy vet finds purpose as a Paralympian

Brad Snyder gestures to the crowd ahead of the men's 100m freestyle - S11 final swimming event at the London 2012 Paralympics.

For Brad Snyder, it's the little things that present the biggest challenges. Take Uber rides, for example.

An explosion in Afghanistan's Kandahar Valley spewed shrapnel into Snyder's face on September 7, 2011, while he was on deployment as a weapons expert embedded with a team of Navy SEALs. The 31-year-old veteran is now a world-class Paralympic swimmer, so he needs to train a lot — ideally six days a week, for a couple hours each day, covering 30,000 meters per week in total.

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But he can't drive himself to training — much less to the doctor's office, the grocery store or all the other tiny destinations most of us take for granted. So the Uber rides add up, cutting into an already tight budget.

Many others have similar stories. Olympians like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt are celebrity millionaires, but the vast majority of Olympic athletes and hopefuls don't have sponsorships or other revenue streams paying their way.

This is especially true for Americans. Unlike in most countries, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) does not receive government funding. The organization says its athletes have an average income of under $20,000 per year, trying to balance their sports dreams with the crunch of everyday living.

Pressure only increases for Synder and fellow Paralympians. There are the Uber rides. Then there's the "couple hundred" bucks per month he has to pay to keep his service dog fed and healthy. Add in eating at restaurants for most meals because preparing food at home while blind is difficult... and the list goes on.

BradSnyder4
"Tappers," people stationed outside the pool, notify blind swimmers as they near the wall.
IMAGE: CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES)
"Mobility is my biggest challenge," Snyder says.

Make no mistake — Snyder has earned tremendous success in his sport since the bomb took his sight away. He won three medals, two golds and a silver, at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. He currently holds the world record among blind swimmers in both the 400 and 100-meter freestyle events.

Now Snyder wants to defend his medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. One year from the games, he's hoping supportive countrymen can help him and his USA teammates get to Brazil through a new USOC campaign launched this spring.

"We don't want funds or lack of support to be the reason someone doesn't pursue their dreams," Snyder says.

Three of Snyder's four grandparents were in the Navy, and he knew he wanted to follow them from an early age.

"I always grew up thinking I wanted to be part of the military, playing with G.I. Joes and seeing Top Gun when I was a kid," he says today. "Magnum, P.I. was even my favorite show on TV, and he was a Naval Academy graduate."

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After swimming in high school in Florida, Snyder gained an early acceptance offer from that same U.S. Naval Academy, where he captained the swim team. He also became fascinated with bombs while at the academy — how they're built, and how they can be rendered incapable of carnage with focus and precision.

"I just really liked the problem-solving nature of how you approach taking a bomb apart," Snyder says.

He was embedded with a team of Navy SEALs on that September day in the Kandahar Valley, supporting the team as a weapons expert. His metal detector inadvertently detonated a 40-pound improvised explosive device (IED). Schrapnel erupted into his face, leaving him scarred and blind.

Learning to navigate day-to-day life would prove a challenge, but athletics provided an outlet. Seven days after the blast, Snyder was running on a treadmill. That Thanksgiving, he ran a five-kilometer turkey trot. He got back in the pool soon after.

"I kind of had a chip on my shoulder and wanted to proved to everyone that the injury wasn't going to slow me down and affect me," Snyder says.

One year after the IED blast in Afghanistan took away his eyesight, Snyder won gold at the London Paralympics. But he's not done yet.

Right now, Snyder has another Paralympic swimmer crashing at his place in Baltimore. She still has her eyesight, so she can drive them to training together. She gets to live rent-free for a spell, while having access to better training facilities that she has at home. Snyder gets some relief from those ever-mounting Uber bills.

Those are the kinds of deals everyday Olympic and Paralympic athletes work out, Snyder says, to support their podium dreams.

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It's with that constant juggling act in mind the USOC launched something called the Team USA Registry this past April. Picture a wedding registry, but loaded with sports gear. A donation of $25 pays for a hopeful's tank of gas. A $5 donation buys a water bottle. A $100 donation covers a set of tires for wheelchair basketball.

The specifics are strictly symbolic — donations actually all go into one big fund — but are meant to make the support feel more direct for athletes and donors alike.

Snyder says the idea is to "build a personal connection with the fans while trying to help curb the cost for the athletes."

The USOC is "about halfway" to its goal of 2,750 donated items, according to USOC chief development officer Jon Denney. But with a year still to go until the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in Rio next summer, much more can yet be done.

Snyder, for his part, says his resilience after being blinded in Afghanistan has taught him one thing above all else: "Give me an opportunity and I'll succeed."

Now he and his peers hope their fellow Americans will help give them that opportunity.

http://mashable.com/2015/07/03/blinded-in-afghanistan-navy-vet-finds-pur...

July 7, 2015
By: Sam Laird - Mashable