ROAD TO RIO | More than chasing gold, Paralympian Brad Snyder chasing his 'old' self
“Mom,” he said, “we’re going to be just fine.”
Snyder, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, will swim in his second Paralympic Games when they open Wednesday in Rio, five years to the day an IED blew up and blinded him in Afghanistan, where he was serving as an explosive ordnance disposal officer.
Snyder is already a battlefield-to-Paralympics success story, winning two gold medals in London with little training.
In Rio, he plans to swim the 50, 100 and 400-meter freestyles, the 100 backstroke and the 100 butterfly.
In one of his golden swims in London, the 100-meter freestyle, he set a Paralympic Games record of 57.18 seconds. But he’s better known for the second, the 400-meter freestyle, winning it on Sept. 7, 2012, the one-year anniversary of his injury. A year after his encouraging words in the hospital settled his mom, Snyder draped the gold medal over her neck.
“This is for everything we’ve been through in the past year,” Snyder said to her. “We don’t have to think about that day in a bad way any more.”
Most soldiers injured by an IED lose limbs or extremities. Snyder’s face bore the brunt of the blast. It all but destroyed his jaw, punctured his eardrum and drove the earpiece he was wearing through an eye, said his mother. Doctors hoped one eye could be saved enough for Snyder to see at least light and dark, but the damage to both was too extensive. They were removed and Snyder was fitted with prosthetic eyes. He underwent significant plastic surgery to repair his face.
Now, Snyder, 32, has three world championship titles, won in 2015. He is an accomplished motivational speaker and professional athlete. His book, “Fire in My Eyes,” comes out today (Sept. 6). He has sponsors and even a feature movie in the works about his life.
But he has a bigger mission than collecting more fame and Paralympic gold.
“I’m chasing my old self,” he said.
His “old self” — the seeing one — swam a 4:16 400-meter freestyle at 17 or 18. His “old self” was a four-year distance swimmer at Navy, team captain and someone good enough to once reach a Grand Prix final that included Michael Phelps.
Snyder’s new self has done the math, and figures it’s doable.
“I go a 4:32 now,” he said recently. “If you extrapolate, it’s about four seconds a hundred” to drop.
In chasing his old self, Snyder is establishing a new mindset as a Paralympian, inspired by Japan four-time world champion Kiichi Kimura, 25, a swimmer who refuses to measure himself in terms of his injury.
“He doesn’t like that Paralympians are slower than Olympians,” Snyder said. “In his mind, he should be as fast as an Olympian and I kind of have the same mentality.”
Snyder said the 4:16 – which would be a world Paralympic record — is a realistic goal. At Navy, Snyder raced much longer distances, including the 1,500-meter event. The longest event in Rio is the 400, requiring him to transition from distance to sprints.
Since the 2012 Paralympics in London, which came just four months after he started swimming seriously again, Snyder has hit the weight room, hard.
He has a trainer and does three or four sessions a week, “NFL-style stuff,” he said.
Snyder did a lot of weight workouts in Afghanistan. But remarkably, he’s even stronger now.
“I pushed a sled with 500 pounds the other day,” Snyder said, “and I only weigh 150 pounds…I’m moving weight that I never did as an able-bodied person.”
He is more self-assured, more ready than four years ago.
“I feel stronger than I’ve ever been right now,” Snyder said. “I feel better prepared than I’ve ever been and I can’t wait to step up to the block in Rio because I know these Games I’m unstoppable. It has everything to do with the preparation I’ve been able to do.”
Strength and speed won’t mean much if you run into obstacles you can’t see. Blind swimmers can get tangled up in lane lines. They can mis-time their turns or smack into the wall. So during races, blind swimmers get “tapped” with a long pole when they’re close.
Snyder doesn’t train with a tapper, because that would require two people stationed at either end for every training session. Options are to use Styrofoam noodles or sprinklers as a wall warning, like other swimmers.
Instead, Snyder chooses to count his strokes: 39 per lap.
“The good news is it has created a good level of resilience or independence,” said his coach, Loyola (Md.) University’s Brian Loeffler. “So when he is on the road … he is still able to train without me there. I can give him the workout to do.”
Independence came quickly to Snyder, who moved from his parents’ Florida home to downtown Baltimore just seven months after he was blinded. He has a guide dog, a German shepherd named Gizzy. He catches rides to the pool with his friend and roommate, Paralympian Lizzi Smith, or calls for an Uber.
Before workouts, Snyder and Gizzy arrive at the pool and walk across the pool deck, where Snyder clips Gizzy’s leash to Loeffler’s office door handle. Then Gizzy usually settles in for a nap, only stirring on occasion when Loeffler has Snyder do race starts.
“Gizzy will bark a little bit when Brad dives off the box,” Loeffler said. “We’re not sure why she doesn’t like that very much.”
Snyder started swimming at 11, a determined boy with a lot of energy who went from being the self-proclaimed worst-in-the-pool to an NCAA-caliber swimmer. At age 2 or 3, said his mom, she came home to find he had taken apart a dresser, drawer knobs, nails and all, explaining that he just wanted to see how it was put together.
Now he appears to have rebuilt his life. His injury came on the heels of brutal personal losses — his father, a former respiratory therapist on medical disability, had died four months earlier. A former girlfriend committed suicide, and a close friend had been killed in action, Loeffler said.
“I think that’s where some of his positive outlook comes from,” Loeffler said. “I think (he is) using swimming as a vehicle to let his mom and family know he was going to be OK, (that) it’s just another part of who he is now.”
People admit they sometimes forget Snyder is blind. He can use muscles behind both eyes to move them, creating the sensation he can see. He has an uncanny sense of direction, keeping track of turns as a car passenger, said his mom, a neonatal nurse. He’ll ask for an object and use a color, even though he’s just guessing.
“He’ll say, `Gimme that blue thing,’” said Valarie, but it’s beige. “He just imagines in his mind what the color would be. He is such a visualizer.”
His mind’s eye sees what he, and sometimes others, cannot.
“Blindness isn’t an excuse,” he said. “I’m an elite athlete and I want people to see me that way. I don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh, it’s great that you’ve overcome so much. I want people to perceive me for what I’m capable of doing, not what I’m not capable of doing, you know what I mean?”