Speed led swim­mer out of dark place

Blind af­ter a land mine blast, Brad Sny­der finds new path in the wa­ter

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Nathan Fenno

“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.”

CHUCK BURTON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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