Speed led swimmer out of dark place
Blind after a land mine blast, Brad Snyder finds new path in the water
“I’m dead.” The thought settled on Brad Snyder amid the smoke from the blast of a homemade land mine. He lay on a patch of grass in southern Afghanistan.
An instant earlier, Snyder had rushed past the patrol’s Navy SEALs and Afghan commandos with a stretcher for two Afghans torn apart by a similar device. He heard a loud pop. The blast slammed him backward and bent his rifle across his body armor.
Snyder waited for death, then pain jolted him back to life. His right eye didn’t work. The left one wasn’t much better. His face felt shredded. His hands hurt.
Snyder tried to stem a growing panic. He figured that his luck would run out one of these days in this scrap of Afghanistan near Kandahar choked with improvised explosive devices and rough terrain. Snyder and a fellow explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer were in front of each patrol with metal detectors, responsible for guiding the SEAL platoon they
were attached to through the region’s dangerous maze.
A teammate who witnessed the incident described it on the condition he not be identified because he remains on active duty and isn’t authorized to speak publicly. He followed Snyder’s voice into the cloud of smoke and dust and cut off his gear.
“I said, ‘Good news, your hands and legs are still there, but your face is [messed] up,’ ” the teammate recalled. “Right away he calmed down.”
Snyder, a former captain of the Navy swim team who now trains at Loyola Maryland, couldn’t have known that the morning in 2011 would put him on a path leading to the Rio Paralympics. The games open Wednesday — the five-year anniversary of his injury.
About a week after the explosion, Snyder awoke after four hours of surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
The blast had ruptured his right eardrum and broken his right hand. Burns from the plastic jug that housed the land mine covered his right arm. Debris had peppered his chest and arms with scars. But his face absorbed the brunt of the damage. Doctors removed his left eye during the surgery. Not enough of the right eye remained to repair.
Alone in the room with his mother, Valarie, after receiving the news, Snyder told her everything was going to be fine. He believed it, too.
“The fact that my eyes won’t come back is relatively small in the grand scheme of things,” Snyder said. “It actually made it easier to say, ‘OK, I know how to contend with this.’ I know what my devil is. I’ll be able to face it and figure it out.”
Several weeks later, Fred Lewis, the St. Petersburg Aquatics coach who had guided Snyder’s early years in the pool, attended a block party for Snyder.
“Are we going to see you at practice tomorrow?” Lewis asked.
The next day, Valarie Snyder drove her son to the pool. Lewis rigged foam noodles at both ends so Snyder knew when to turn. He tugged on a big scuba mask and completed four laps. The pain and the struggle faded away in the water.
At first, Snyder couldn’t figure out Rich Cardillo. The man in charge of military outreach for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes at the time was the first person Snyder encountered who actually seemed excited that he couldn’t see. Cardillo offered the chance to return to the pool on a regular basis.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to have your vision to enjoy life,” said Cardillo. “Everything’s not lost because you can’t see.”
Snyder wanted to figure out what a career looked like for a newly blind man who spent the previous six years jumping out of airplanes, learning to disarm bombs, scuba diving, blowing things up and tromping through Iraq and Afghanistan. Swimming didn’t seem that important. On the other hand, escaping from the full-time rehabilitation facility in Augusta, Ga., to train three days each week wasn’t a bad deal.
Cardillo’s persistence made sense after Snyder’s first meet in February 2012 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He was the fastest fully blind swimmer in the U.S. Snyder assumed this was a mistake. It wasn’t.
Within months, Snyder moved to Baltimore to train with Loyola Maryland coach Brian Loeffler and qualified for the London Paralympics.
“All of a sudden, within a year I’ve got this storybook reality,” Snyder said. “I’m feeling like I’m just watching this dope Brad Snyder walk into this crazy life and I’m just watching and laughing along with everybody else.”
On the one-year anniversary of the blast, Snyder won the 400-meter freestyle for his second gold medal in London.
Such success now characterized much of his life. A book he co-authored about his experience comes out this month. A movie is in the works. He designed a tactile watch, works with companies like Under Armour and, when there’s time, gives motivational talks.
“I finally accepted that what I’m doing is something valuable,” Snyder said.
He’s also swimming faster than when he could see. That includes holding the world record in the 100-meter freestyle for swimmers who are fully blind. He could challenge the 50 freestyle world record in Rio.
“I came back to life. I came back for a second chance,” Snyder said. “If the worst I have to deal with is not being able to see, it’s certainly better than being dead. I’ve gone as far down as you can possibly go. If you can reconcile your own death and still come back from that, it doesn’t get any worse. It can only get better from there.”
Brad Snyder, a former captain of the Navy swim team who now trains at Loyola Maryland, could challenge the 50-meter freestyle world record at the Paralympics in Rio.