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Paralympic gold medalist Brad Snyder: When I swim, I don't feel blind

Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
U.S. Olympic Committee
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
U.S. Olympic Committee
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
U.S Olympic Committee
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
Paralympic multiple gold medalist Brad Snyder.
U.S. Olympic Committee

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Creating something positive out of a tragedy isn't easy but after being blinded in combat, but Brad Snyder has done exactly that. 

He won two gold medals and tied for a silver in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Four years ago, he took home two gold medals in London in 2012—just one year after losing his sight in combat.

Now, he has written a memoir: Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior's Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory.

Take Two's A Martinez spoke with Brad Snyder about coping with devastation, the road to recovery, and the inspiration he hopes to share with the world. 


The day Brad Snyder lost his sight 

At the time, I was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan and I was deployed with a special operations unit whose job was to train, equip, and escort on operations these Afghan Commandos which is their version of special operations…. We were between two villages when two of our Afghan commandos stepped on an improvised explosive device….Both were unconscious and both were in really bad shape so we were in a very desperate medevac situation. So I was running around trying to help where I could and it turns out, I stepped on another improvised explosive despite the fact that I was clearing with a metal detector - at the time, I missed it….Luckily it blew up just a foot and a half in front of me which saved my limbs but unfortunately I took most of the blast to my face.

On regret and moving forward

A component of the entire story and a component of being able to pick up the pieces and move forward is, you can’t blame yourself forever. You make a mistake, you got to live with it. There are consequences to every mistake we make, but it doesn’t necessarily define us. I’m not defined on the failure, I’m define by how I picked up the pieces and moved forward.... Being able to do that was integral to me being able to transform, to re-identify myself, re-identify my purpose and then now, find a lot of value as a US Paralympian instead of a Navy service member.

 From tragedy to gold medals

I didn’t realize at the time how blind I was because of all the drugs I was on when I was first in Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. It took about a week to realize where I was and what was going on. To have a surgeon give you that sobering news: ‘yeah, we’re not going to be able to save your sight but the good news is we’re going to be able to save everything else.’ So, you’re dealing with some really difficult stuff and the emotion is very high… And people are calling me and leaving these very difficult-to-listen-to voicemails about how you’ve impacted their lives… and people are really devastated. My whole life goal was to be a positive impact to folks, to be inspiring, and to be uplifting….so I really hated this idea that I was the source of so much negativity to folks. I wanted to immediately show people, look I’m fine. Look at me live life the same I was when I had vision. The only difference is, I need a cane, or I need a guide dog, or my phone talks to me.  

Shortly after being out of the hospital in Florida, I got to bump into my old friends that I swam with and my old coach…. It really just started as this way to show everybody, don’t worry, everything is going to be okay. I’m the same person I was before. It just turned out that based on my background as a swimmer and based on how good of shape I was in Afghanistan - all that kind of came together. Other folks were like, you should give this Paralympics a try and to be honest with you, I was resistant to the idea at first but got convinced to do it and it led to an incredible experience… and honestly led to a career I never would have anticipated for myself as a professional athlete.

Training with a disability

By and large, the training doesn’t change. We try as hard as we can to portray to everyone that Paralympians are elite athletes so we do the same thing that the NFL players do, that the Olympians do.

...Tactically, I changed the way I swam just a little bit. On my arm recovery, I keep my fingers very low on the surface of the water, looking for the lane line to make sure I’m swimming straight. Instead of flip turning the way I used to, I wait for a teammate or a coach to tap me at the wall with a long stick with a tennis ball on the end so to indicate, hey, you’re at the wall, you need to turn. I would use adjustments as a great word. We made some adjustments to be able to swim without my vision but by and large everything was the same. And that’s what I liked about it. When I swim, I don’t feel blind. I feel just the way I used to.

Finding inspiration in tragedy

The story I don’t get to tell is how hard the two years leading up to that were. It wasn’t necessarily blindness. I lost a teammate in Iraq, Tyler - he got killed by a roadside bomb and then a girl I had been dating succumbed to depression and committed suicide in 2010. I didn’t have very good life habits when I lived in Virginia Beach and I ended up getting a D.U.I. that almost ruined my career. Then, while in Afghanistan, I found out that my dad died. Not that I believe in it but I felt like destiny was really beating me down for a period of three years. I really struggled through all those things and really struggled to find who I was and what my purpose was.

….Finally I got the evidence I needed that if you just keep at it for long enough, things come back around. I think that’s why we wanted to write the book. That’s why we’re working on other projects - to get out there and share this story. I don’t go out to talk to audiences because I like to hear applause…it’s because I really learned a lot through really difficult experiences.

I hope that people can see themselves in this story and know, we all face these challenges. We all hit these high points and we all hit these low points….Hopefully my story can be a source of inspiration and hope to others who are going through similar struggles.

Click the blue audio player to hear the full interview.