Paralympic champion Brad Snyder has singular mission in Rio

Get to know Paralympic swimmer Brad Snyder.

BALTIMORE — As Brad Snyder stood atop the podium in the London Aquatics Centre at the 2012 Paralympics, a gold medal dangling from his neck, he heard cheers from the crowd.

He felt the pressure disappear as he claimed victory in the 400-meter freestyle, a race he wanted to win for his family and friends who feared he might lose his life exactly one year earlier.

And he knew almost everyone in the London venue had a smile plastered on their faces. He just couldn’t see the grins.

On Sept. 7, 2011, Snyder was working as a Naval explosive ordinance disposal officer when an improvised explosive device robbed him of his vision but not his desire to serve.

Four years later, Snyder is gearing up for another Paralympic run. Now a full-time swimmer with sponsors promoting his performance, Snyder wants to leave Rio with more gold medals and moments of fulfillment. The opening ceremony for the Paralympics is Wednesday; swimming will be held Sept. 8-17.

“That’s my whole mission,” Snyder said. “Make people happy and inspired, make people uplifted.”

A swimming career

Snyder, 32, grew up in Florida training with athletes fostering Olympic hopes and racing against Ryan Lochte. But as Snyder realized his times lagged behind, he opted to pursue a Naval Academy career, swimming for the Midshipmen until 2006, acting as team captain in his senior year.

Snyder served in Iraq as an EOD officer in 2008 and in Afghanistan in 2011. About five months into the latter stint, Snyder participated in a foot patrol operation. While moving to tend to a blast, Snyder’s ears popped and he felt like someone punched him in the stomach. He had stepped on a secondary device.

As he lay on his back, he saw through his left eye he still had his limbs. He thought he had died.

His teammates helped him into a helicopter, and Snyder woke up from a medically induced coma 60 hours later, enduring rounds of pain medication, hallucinations and surgery.

On the sixth day, a doctor told Snyder he’d make a full recovery from the neck down. His facial lacerations would heal, too. But Snyder had a less than 1% chance of distinguishing light and dark with his left eye. He wouldn’t regain his vision.

“You realize, ‘I am blind, and I will be blind for the rest of my life,’” Snyder said. “But there was some level of optimism inherent in that moment because now I knew what my demon was.”

Snyder soon moved to a veteran’s hospital in Tampa for blind rehabilitation, learning to use his cane, fold clothes and create mental maps of his surroundings. One weekend, he went to a barbecue with his family and friends.

He wanted to prove he could recover, so when his former swim coach joked about practice the next morning, Brad accepted the challenge, using a scuba mask to cover his stitches.

The United States Association of Blind Athletes learned about Snyder’s swimming and flew him to Colorado Springs to complete Paralympic eligibility paperwork and a classification exam. Snyder also moved to Baltimore for a software internship and began training with Loyola (Md.) coach Brian Loeffler.

Snyder learned to count each lap, using a “catch-up” stroke method to keep one hand in front of his body to protect from collisions. They developed an interval training plan that saw Snyder earn a national team spot, Paralympic Trials berth and three Paralympic medals in a nine-month span.

“I didn’t really ever take a step back and realize what had happened until everything had already happened,” Snyder said.

Lofty goals for Rio

For a year after the London Games — where he won two golds and a silver medal — Snyder didn’t swim while adjusting to his new lifestyle. When walking outside, Snyder would sometimes end up blocks away from his intended destination. When he took is guide dog, Gizzy, to the park, she would play “keep-away,” leaving Snyder feeling “helpless.”

He also grappled with choosing his next profession after his military retirement in 2013. He considered getting an MBA or law degree and received rejections from consulting positions. Instead, Snyder decided to parlay his love for swimming into a career.

He now travels as a motivational speaker and has seven sponsors in the build-up to Rio. As an Under Armour athlete, Snyder exercises at the company’s Baltimore facilities with a weight training regimen Loeffler hopes will build Snyder’s explosiveness.

Loeffler has also ramped up the intensity in Snyder’s pool workouts. Rest time between laps has shortened while emphasis on mixing distance and sprint patterns has increased.

“We’re focusing on the freestyle events,” Loeffler said. “When we look at our goals, I think it’s really setting them at medals and world records.”

Snyder feels he has an advantage against his opponents because he learned to swim with full vision. He understands how correct body positions look and feel. He watched swimming star Michael Phelps in his prime, emulating Phelps’ stroke and flip turns in his own races.

The Paralympic classification system divides competitors by degree of blindness; Snyder is S11 for no vision at all. Snyder doesn’t let negativity seep into his training, Loeffler said.

To combat cuts he endures from his arms rubbing the lane lines, Snyder uses basketball shooting sleeves for protection. He abides by a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. sleep schedule to manage his lack of Circadian rhythm. When four of his teammates see their energy levels dip in practice, he pulls them aside for a pep talk.

“It’s not just like a storybook like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s neat,’” said Snyder’s roommate and teammate Lizzi Smith, who also qualified for Rio. “Every action he does every day, it’s pushing me to be a better person.”

Smith often drives Snyder to practice, but when she can’t, Snyder trusts himself to navigate the directions. He listens to cars’ sounds and uses scents near coffee shops to pinpoint his location, senses he felt vulnerable relying on four years ago.

Snyder has also enjoyed celebrity, attending two of the last four ESPY Award shows and being nominated this year for “Best Male Athlete with a Disability.” It’s a platform Snyder didn’t anticipate when he stood atop the podium in London.

“The expectation is on a level that it never was before,” Snyder said. “I need to step up my game because the game has stepped up, and I really relish that challenge.”

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/rio-2016/2016/09/05/paraly...

September 6, 2016
USA Today by: Callie Caplan