A lot can change in a year, as Paralympic swimmer Brad Snyder knows. He was a lieutenant in the Navy, serving in Afghanistan in September 2011, when he lost both of his eyes after stepping on an explosive device while trying to help victims of another bomb blast.
“It was so frustrating because I used to be this really capable guy. I was in Afghanistan, I could shoot things, I could make things blow up, I could jump out of airplanes. And to be taken down to such a basic level was so frustrating,” Snyder, who used to be the former U.S. Naval Academy swim captain, tells Us Weekly of learning to survive without his vision.
“The pool was the first place that I felt free. I could swim back and forth, all day long. I didn’t need help, I didn’t need a talking phone, I didn’t need a guide dog, I didn’t need a cane — I didn’t need anything other than just me and the water.… It was just so liberating. To succeed at that allowed me to kind of rebuild this shattered image of myself.”
The 32-year-old, who says he thought of himself as a badass before his accident, quickly started succeeding at his old sport of swimming. On the first anniversary of his accident, Snyder won a gold medal, one of three medals he took home from the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
“It’s so surreal because it feels like a dream,” Synder says. “All my memories from London seem like dream sequences. Everything is so big, everything is so crazy — the crowds are so large, there’s opening ceremonies and there is this giant cafeteria and this arena of 18,000 people watching swimming. And I was new enough to being blind that it was hard for me; I was still learning to perceive the world.”
Snyder had wanted to be an Olympian as a child, but had long given up on the dream.
“I had every dream and hope and aspiration to be an Olympian one day, and at some point or another you kind of reach a plateau and realize, ‘I’m going to be a good swimmer, I’m not going to be a great one.’ To have that dream come back to life really quickly … it was just so crazy and, honestly, it took a while. It took into the ensuing year, maybe two years, to really fully grasp and understand the transformation that occurred in that time period.”
As for Rio, the freestyle swimmer has big goals now that he’s adjusted to being blind.
“This time I know what I’m getting into. I have so much more training and I’m much better adjusted now, I’m not newly blind,” Snyder tells Us. “ Now, now I can go and know that it’s not a dream, it’s real.… I won two races in London, I’d love to win another — three potentially — I’m probably going to swim four, so maybe I could win four races.”