By Angel Canales, ABC News
Every time 32-year-old Brad Snyder gets in the water he feels he’s in his element.
“When I’m swimming, I feel in control, I feel independent, I feel like I know what I’m doing. Swimming is really the only thing that I feel that I’ve mastered,” he said.
Snyder’s interest in swimming started very early and at age 11 his father asked him to channel his energy into something productive. “We went down to the local recreational pool when we lived in Bradenton, Florida, at the time and I was not very good at first,” he said. “It’s funny, I thought I was a really great swimmer in the ocean and body surfing and things like that.”
It was a different thing to be a competitive swimmer, but the sport is where the retired Navy lieutenant, who lost his sight in an IED explosion, found his passion.
“It’s a whole other ball game and I rapidly saw people doing things I didn’t think I was capable of,” he said. “Pretty soon, I was doing doubles, I was doing weights; and I got really enthralled in this concept where not only does work hard pay off, the harder I work, the more there’s a payoff.”
Snyder’s dedication and hard work paid off in 2012 when he became a Paralympic champion at the London Summer games after winning two gold medals.
But the road to London wasn’t easy. A year before his gold medals, Snyder, who had a 7-year career in the Navy, was working as an Explosive Ordinance officer when an improvised explosive went off in front of him and left him blind.
“My right eye was pretty decimated and my left eye was rendered useless,” said Snyder, a Naval Academy graduate who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “I woke up in the hospital, doctors were telling me, ‘The good news is you’re still alive, the good news is your brain works, the good news is your heart works, the good news is your hands are going to heal just fine, bad news is, you know, you’re not going to be able to see again.”
The road to recovery was a long one, but it was through swimming that the former Naval Academy swim team captain found a new purpose. “My indoctrination in Paralympic swimming actually occurred before I was ever released from the hospital. The very beginning of it was, I was transferred shortly after I left intensive care at Walter Reed,” he says.
Around that time his old swim coach came over and he would like to start swim practice again. “I thought, this is the opportunity. This is how I’m going to be able to show people the capability that I have versus, you know, the things that I’ve lost,” he said.
But it was when he got a call from the Association of Blind Athletes asking him if he wanted to explore the Paralympic realm as an opportunity to rehabilitate his dream of becoming an Olympian and inspiration to others. “When I have the opportunity to go out on the road and share this story or show people my medal or when the story goes out and people watch, they come back to me and then there’s messages online or people tell me in real life that, “You know, this has impacted me. This has changed the way that I perceive my own capability,” he said.
Winning two gold medals — in the 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle competitions – and a silver at the London Paralympics was an important step for Snyder. “In London, I was this kind of, in so many ways, a new athlete again,” he said. “When I came out of London, the level of success I had was just … I was blown away, my coach was blown away, my family was blown away,” he says.
After London, Snyder continued to compete and won three gold medals at the 2015 IPC in the 50-meter, 100-meter, and 400-meter freestyle at the Swimming World Championships and he is currently the world record holder for the blind swimmer 100-meter freestyle.
Four years later, Snyder is competing at the Rio Paralympic games and hopes to win four gold medals this time.
“I think that’s something I’m definitely capable of doing,” he said. “I guess in sum, my goals for Rio are to come away with four gold medals and a world record. I think one of the most important aspects of performance is to set high standards for yourself, set those goals that are scary, that are challenging, that you don’t think you can accomplish because that’s how you know you’re pushing yourself the right way.”