Brad Snyder stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011, and the blindness that resulted from that explosion changed nearly everything for him.
He couldn’t drive anymore. He sometimes locked the door of his hospital room when it was time to eat because he was so self-conscious about people seeing him make a mess. Brushing his teeth became a struggle, because he couldn’t figure out how to get the right amount of toothpaste onto the toothbrush.
But swimming? Snyder still felt free there. A former four-year collegiate swimmer and a team captain at the U.S. Naval Academy, Snyder had always felt at home in the water. Even when he could no longer see, that did not change.
Snyder, 32, has since become one of the world’s most accomplished Paralympic swimmers. He will be among the 400 disabled athletes competing in Charlotte Thursday through Sunday as they try to earn a berth in September’s Paralympics in Brazil.
Swimming in a straight line isn’t easy when you are blind. “It’s a big challenge,” Snyder said, “and if I took my shirt off you would see a lot of cuts and bruises. I hit the lane line sometimes. You just have to find a way to hit it and keep going.”
‘I was moving too fast’
Snyder grew up in Florida. Long interested in the military, he went to Navy, graduated with a degree in naval architecture and then deployed twice – first to Iraq, then to Afghanistan.
His official job title was an “EOD” – explosive ordnance disposal officer. “A bomb technician,” Snyder calls it now, and it is a job that is inherently dangerous. One mistake – and Snyder will readily tell you that his blindness is the result of his own mistake – can be crippling or fatal.
On Sept. 7, 2011, part of Snyder’s patrol was in Afghanistan on foot. Two men had already sustained serious injuries from another IED. Those men were being evacuated. Snyder and his fellow EOD partner were trying to clear a path for a safe evacuation, sweeping the ground with metal detectors.
“Imagine that guy sweeping for gold at the beach,” Snyder said. “That was me. But I was moving too fast. Instead of covering all the ground, I was kind of zigzagging. My adrenalin was high. And grass had grown over the area, which likely means the IED had been there for a very long time. I just missed a spot.”
The IED detonated and Snyder was thrown to the ground.
“When I stepped on that bomb, I thought I had died,” he said. “I lay on the ground thinking, ‘What happens next? Will I see my grandpa or my dad (who were both deceased)?’ But I got a second chance.”
‘Better than being dead’
It would turn out that Snyder’s vision was gone, but his other wounds were mostly superficial. He would need prosthetic eyes – he wears glasses now to protect them from damage – but the rest of him would heal.
“I wasn’t adapting to blindness so much as I was just happy to be alive,” Snyder said. “And if the worst that I have to deal with is not being able to see, that’s certainly better than being dead.”
Snyder had not known about the Paralympics before his injury, but an organization that helps blind athletes reached out to him and he was game for the challenge. Exactly one year after his injury – Sept. 7, 2012 – he won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Paralympics in London.
Snyder has swum in Charlotte before, but only during his able-bodied career. At ages 12 and 16, he competed at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. “It’s one of my favorite pools,” he said.
Assuming Snyder qualifies in one or more swimming events in Charlotte this weekend, he will be a medal favorite once again in Brazil. Snyder has written a book about his struggle called “Fire in My Eyes” that will be published in August, and there are talks about a biographical movie.
As for brushing his teeth? Snyder finally figured out the best way to do that, too.
“Now I just put the toothpaste in my mouth first and then I brush my teeth after that,” Snyder said. “It has all taken awhile. But eventually, I’ve adapted.”
Want to go?
U.S. Paralympic Team Trials
Where: Swimming events at Mecklenburg Aquatic Center; track and field events at Johnson C. Smith University; cycling time trials at The Park in Huntersville.
Admission: All events free.