Rio Paralympics 2016: Blind Navy veteran Brad Snyder seeks more gold

On Sept. 7, 2012, a year to the day after an improvised explosive device took his sight in Afghanistan, Brad Snyder stood atop a podium in London and heard "The Star Spangled Banner."

Snyder, a former captain of the U.S. Naval Academy swim team, had just won his second Paralympic gold medal, and he hadn't even learned how to be blind.

At that point in Snyder's life, everything still seemed to be hurtling by him in a rush. He had no interest in staying idle or living as a victim after stepping on that IED in a Panjwai valley, as evidenced by his decision to run a 5K less than a month after the explosion and get back in the pool shortly after that. But in the months following that life-shattering moment, it was all he could do to get through a day.

"Any time that I'm left alone, whether it's inside of a room, in the lobby of a hotel, in the hospital, out of the hospital, outside, I'm completely lost," he said of that period. "So this is where I am in February of 2012 — I literally don't know where I am — and everyone else is saying, 'You should be a Paralympian.' I thought, be a Paralympian? I don't even know how to find the bathroom, let alone be a Paralympian."

That route turned out to the path of least resistance in some regards. In nearly every other aspect of his life, from picking out his clothes to washing his laundry or the dishes to brushing his teeth, Snyder often ended up "banging my head up against the wall, literally and figuratively," as he worked his way through what he calls the "micro-problems" that filled his day.

But all of that fell away when he got into the water.

"Swimming was just one of those things that I didn't struggle at, and it was the first time for me as an individual that I felt like I was doing something and doing it well," he said. "And from an outside perspective, people looked at me and they didn't look at me as a blind guy struggling."

The latter aspect still rankles Snyder, a lifelong high-achiever who chose to follow a family tradition of military service, who opted to disregard the degree he earned in naval architecture in favor of becoming a Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer, who often took the point on special forces patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan while leading with a pair of metal detectors rather than his M4 service rifle.

"I'm used to being this highly capable person deploying with special operations and killing bad guys and having that real tangible impact for the positive on the world that I live in, all that sort of stuff," he said. "Then I go to, every time I walk down the street in my neighborhood with a cane in my hand, people just assume that I have no idea what I'm doing. That's a tough blow.

"But when I swim, and especially when I swim in the Paralympics or I put a cap on that has my name under (a U.S. flag), people look at me completely different — like, wow, he is a subject-matter expert, he is a gold medalist, he's a Paralympian, he's a bad-ass. They look at me completely different, and I kind of needed that, I guess, when I first transitioned. I needed to have that area where I could feel good again and feel like I'm a master at this as opposed to just struggling and being that cliché lost blind guy."

Nothing about Snyder's persona threatens to lump him in with that stereotype. Sure, he navigates the world with that cane and help from his guide dog, Gizzy, but the 32-year-old has no time for passivity. He's an articulate, expansive speaker who radiates energy. His long-term plans out of the pool are centered on coming up with "a programmatic approach to the negotiation of challenge and being able to impart that to others" via speeches or seminars. His autobiography, "Fire In My Eyes," was released last month.

Snyder still speaks often about tactics, as he would have when parsing a potential minefield. He thrives on organization and structure even more now than he did in the military, and in the years since the London Games, he has taken a methodical approach to improving both his quality of life and his performance in the pool.

He heads to Rio as the defending world champion in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle in the S11 classification (athletes who are considered totally blind). He's in far better physical shape than he was four years ago after following a dedicated training program, and perhaps more important he has vastly improved body awareness. He can tell, for instance, if he's getting crooked in his lane by the way the water flows across his body.

It's all part of getting more comfortable with "being able to swim in the dark," as he puts it, and that growth could set him up for a significant medal haul in Brazil. However that turns out, though, he'll return to everyday life in a far better place than he was four years ago.

"I think 2012 was like a year I took out a loan on how to be blind," he said. "… I really just got into swimming and didn't think about anything other than swimming during that year. It was in the years afterward that I really had all those deep conversations with myself and my family about 'who am I now? and 'what does that mean?' Those are really transformational kind of dialogues to have with yourself, and I think I'm an immensely more powerful person now — especially mentally, but physically also — going into this Games. …

"That's what makes Rio so special now, is that now I understand all those things, now I feel comfortable as a blind person, I know where I am and I know what I'm doing and I'm doing this much more deliberately now. I think Rio's going to be different for me … because I'm a different person than I was in London. I've accepted my blindness and I know what it means."

September 9, 2016
Sporting News by: Marc Lancaster