Brad Snyder grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and started competitive swimming at a young age. “My dad thought it was a good idea to let us exercise,” Snyder says. “The most natural thing to do in Florida was swim. I thought I would be good because I was always in the water, but I wasn’t very good at the beginning.”
Snyder began training under Robert Margalis, who was trying to make it to the 2000 Olympics. Snyder says, “Training with Robert did two things: it showed me what an Olympic-caliber athlete was, and [it made me realize] I was not That athlete … at least not at that age.”
Although he wasn’t quite ready for the Olympics, Snyder used to be talented enough to swim for a Division I college program at the US Naval Academy. Although other schools have recruited him, he says, “I really didn’t go to very much… [other] places. The Naval Academy was No. 1. He swam there for four years and immediately dove into the Navy upon graduation (pun fully intended). Snyder says he knew he wanted to do something where he could use his swimming and diving skills, and the Navy told him he could be either a SEAL or an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer. He chose the latter option, which included dangerous to detonate ammunition and reduce the risk of explosion.
In 2008 he was deployed to Iraq. “My deployment to Iraq is not what you would imagine,” says Snyder. “I arrived there in a lull of activity. I wouldn’t call it peace, because it was still an unstable regime from 2008 to 2009. We worked hand in hand with the Iraqi police to teach them how to defuse bombs .”
After his time in Iraq, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he says, “The fighting was much more intense.” He adds: “The main tactic used by the Taliban was to place IEDs” [improvised explosive devices] everywhere. My job was to find these explosives and mitigate these dangers. It was a difficult battle.”
Snyder’s whole life changed one day in the field when he stepped on an IED printing plate. Snyder says, “It looks like a pasted-on phone book, where two pieces of metal connect and close an electrical circuit.” He adds, “[The device] blew up a meter and a half in front of me. I remember what led up to it and then I was on the ground. After the explosion I thought I was dead.”
The Navy immediately transferred him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was in and out of surgery for three weeks to heal the wounds on his face and the burns and scars on his arms. Although he would go on to make a further full recovery, they were unable to save his eyesight. Snyder says he didn’t realize at first that he had lost his sight. “I asked my teammate to take a picture of me so I could see what I looked like,” he says.
After undergoing grueling surgeries for weeks, Snyder was transferred to… James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida. Snyder says, “They had to teach me to be blind.” He explains that adapting takes several forms (think: putting on clothes and feeding yourself), “but the harder part is accepting what your life will be like without seeing.”
Since Snyder’s family was still nearby in the St. Petersburg area, he worked on rehab during the week and with his family on weekends. He explains that there were some growing pains that went beyond the loss of his eyesight. He says: “It was frustrating for me, but I think it really hurt my family to see me like this. [since they knew how I was before]. I knew I needed a way to show people that wouldn’t affect my identity. I’m not going to be a recluse, and I’m going to be a contributing member of society in some way.”
Snyder’s old swim team in St. Petersburg threw a fund-raising party for him, and there his former coach asked if he would like to join the swim practice. “From there, it took a life,” Snyder says. When Snyder first returned to the water after his accident, he said he had to make some adjustments first. “The only scary part is the walls, but my swim coach placed a pool noodle near the wall so my head would touch it. And then I learned to adjust my technique so I could put my hand in front of my head a little bit. I direct my strike with my hand instead of with my head.”
Snyder explains that it was therapeutic for him to be back in the water. He says, “With swimming I’m in a clear box and I can drag the butt into the lane. And that felt really good.” A few months after he started swimming again, a representative of the American Association of Blind Athletes contacted him about possible participation in Paralympic events. “I just shrugged, ‘yeah, why not give this a try.’ It worked out incredibly well, I ended up in the world ranking.” After a few months of training, he made the 2012 Paralympic team.
At the 2012 Paralympic Games, Snyder competed in seven events where he earned two gold medals and one silver medal. The gold medal he earned in the 400-meter freestyle came on September 7, 2012 – exactly one year to the day since his loss of eyesight. He was also part of the 2016 Paralympic team and competed in Rio de Janeiro, where he took home three gold medals and a silver medal. In 2016 he also released his first book, Fire in my eyes, in which he describes his journey from going blind to a decorated Paralympic. Snyder says, “People look at it like ‘I overcame blindness,’ but to me I look at it like I’ve been given a second chance at life and blindness was a side effect.”
Snyder will compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo in September (which were postponed due to COVID-19). This year he is participating in a new sport: paratriathlon (or swimming, running and cycling). Why the switch from swimming? In true Brad Snyder fashion, he says, “Being uncomfortable is the path to growth.”
In addition to competing in a new sport, Snyder says this experience was different from his previous one due to the fact that we were in a global pandemic. He says, “The pandemic has forced us to take each day as it comes and make the most of every workout.” He trained at home with his bike trainer and treadmill, and concentrated on nutrition at home with his wife Sara.
He says that while she does most of the cooking, “I’m the shredder. I have a nice chef’s knife [he likes this one from KitchenAid, $34.99 at Target] and a wavy bench scraper [$10, Pampered Chef], and I try to do the mise en place for my wife. I’m making a mess of it. Since I’m blind, I have to be very intentional. I still make a bit of a mess, and this scraper has helped me a ton.”
Snyder says that ever since he switched gears during training, his diet has had to follow suit. “In 2016 [while preparing for Rio Paralympics], I tried to bulk up and eat as many good calories as possible. [Now] I’m doing longer endurance training, but I’m not trying to build up.” He adds, “You can’t look at diet and training separately. Eating the same amount of food every day is not necessarily appropriate. If you take a day off, you need to eat less.”
That said, Snyder isn’t just a “food-for-fuel” person. He says he and his wife are part of a CSA and order regularly ButcherBox (a meat delivery subscription) for higher quality meat. He also says he loves rare steak and spaghetti. “I’m not afraid of carbs; good carbs are important, especially for endurance athletes. My wife and I eat a lot of pasta,” he says.
Whether you hear him talk about his passion for food or how he became a Paralympic athlete after going blind defending our country, you can’t help but be completely inspired by Brad Snyder and keep your fingers crossed for him. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do this summer.
For more information on all of Team USA’s athletes, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics from July 23 and the Tokyo Paralympic Games from August 24 on NBC.