How Paralympic Athlete Brad Snyder Stays Healthy and Motivated
Brad Snyder grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and started swimming competitively at a young age. “My dad thought it was a good idea to get us into sports,” says Snyder. “The most natural thing to do in Florida was swimming. I thought I’d be good, because I was always in the water, but I wasn’t very good at first.”
Snyder started training under Robert Margalis, who was trying to make the 2000 Olympic Games. Snyder says, “Training with Robert did two things: it showed me what an Olympic-caliber athlete was, and [it made me realize] I wasn’t that athlete … not at that age, anyway.”
Though he wasn’t quite ready for the Olympics, Snyder was talented enough to swim for a Division I college program at the U.S. Naval Academy. Though other schools recruited him, he says, “I really didn’t look at a whole lot of [other] places. The Naval Academy was No. 1.” He swam there for four years and dove right into the Navy after graduation (pun fully intended). Snyder says he knew he wanted to do something in which he could use his swimming and diving skills, and the Navy told him that he could either be a SEAL or an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer. He chose the latter option, which required him to do things like detonate hazardous munitions and mitigate explosive hazards.
In 2008, he was deployed to Iraq. “My deployment to Iraq isn’t what you’d imagine,” Snyder says.”I arrived there in a lull of activity. I don’t want to call it peace, because it was still an unstable regime from 2008 to 2009. We worked hand in hand with Iraqi police to train them how to deactivate bombs.”
After his time in Iraq, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he says, “The fighting was a lot more intense.” He adds, “The primary tactic used by the Taliban was to place IEDs [improvised explosive devices] all over the place. My job was to find these explosives and to mitigate these hazards. It was a difficult battle.”
Snyder’s entire life changed one day in the field when he stepped on an IED pressure plate. Snyder says, “It looks like a taped-up phone book, where two pieces of metal connect and close an electric circuit.” He adds, “[The device] blew up a foot and a half in front of me. I remember what led up to it and being on the ground afterwards. After the blast, I thought I’d died.”
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 scarring on his arms. Though he would go on to make an otherwise-complete recovery, they were unable to save his eyesight. Snyder says he didn’t initially realize he had lost his vision. “I asked my teammate to take a picture of me so I could see what I looked like,” he says.
After weeks of undergoing grueling surgeries, Snyder was transferred to James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida. Snyder says, “They had to train me on how to be blind.” He explains that adapting takes multiple forms (think: putting on clothes and feeding yourself), “but the harder part is accepting what your life is going to be like without seeing.”
Since Snyder’s family was still nearby in the St. Petersburg area, he would work on rehabilitation during the week and stay with his family on the weekends. He explains that there were some growing pains beyond losing his vision. He says, “It was frustrating to me, but I think it really bothered my family to see me this way [since they knew how I was before]. I knew I needed a way to show people that wasn’t going to affect my identity. I’m not going to be a recluse, and I’m going to be a contributing member of society in one way or another.”
Snyder’s old swim team in St. Petersburg threw a party for him to raise money, and there his former coach asked if he wanted to join swim practice. “It kind of took a life from there,” Snyder says. When Snyder first returned to the water after his accident, he says there were some initial adjustments he had to make. “The only scary part is the walls, but my swim coach put a pool noodle by the wall so my head would hit it. And then I learned to adapt my technique so I could lag my hand out in front of my head a little. I lead my stroke with my hand instead of my head.”
Snyder explains that being back in the water was therapeutic for him. He says, “With swimming, I’m in a clear box and I can haul ass in the lane. And that felt really good.” A few months after he started swimming again, a representative from the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes reached out to him about potentially competing in Paralympic events. “I shrugged my shoulders like ‘ya, why not let me give this a try.’ It worked out incredibly well. I ended up on the world rankings list.” After a few months of training, he made the 2012 Paralympic team.
At the 2012 Paralympics, 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 occurred on September 7, 2012—exactly one year to the day since his vision loss. He also made the 2016 Paralympic team and competed in Rio de Janeiro, where he brought home three gold medals and a silver medal. In 2016, he also released his first book, Fire in My Eyes, detailing his journey from being blinded to becoming a decorated Paralympian. Snyder says, “People look at it like ‘I conquered blindness,’ but for me I look at it like I got a second chance at life and blindness was a side effect.”
Snyder is slated to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo this September (which were postponed due to COVID-19). This year, he’ll be competing in a new sport—Paratriathlon (or swimming, running and biking). Why the switch-up from swimming? In true Brad Snyder fashion, he says, “Being uncomfortable is the pathway to growth.”
Beyond competing in a new sport, Snyder says this experience has been different from his past ones due to the fact that we’ve been 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 has been working out at home using his bike trainer and treadmill, as well as focusing on nutrition at home with his wife, Sara.
He says that while she does most of the cooking, “I’m the chopper. 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 make a mess. Being 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 since he’s switched gears in training, his diet has had to follow suit. “In 2016 [while preparing for Rio Paralympics], I was trying to bulk up and eat as many good calories as possible. [Now] I’m doing longer endurance training, but I’m not trying to bulk up.” He adds, “You can’t look at diet and working out independently of each other. Eating the same amount every day isn’t necessarily appropriate. If you take a day off, you don’t need to eat as much.”
That said, Snyder isn’t just a “food as fuel” type of person. He says he and his wife are part of a CSA and regularly order ButcherBox (a meat delivery subscription) for higher-quality meat. He also says he loves to eat 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 talking about his passion for food or about how he became a Paralympic athlete after being blinded while defending our country, you can’t help but be completely inspired by Brad Snyder and root for him. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing this summer.
To learn more about all the Team USA athletes, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23 and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning August 24 on NBC.