The final speaker at the 2018 Power Athlete Symposium was two-time Paralympic gold medalist Brad Snyder. Brad is an engaging speaker. On stage he is steady and careful; in the water, he can fly. Brad is blind.
Before the accident which took his sight, Brad was captain of the swim team at Navy. He was part of the first class to attend the Naval academy after the towers can down on 9/11, and notes that Annapolis was embedded with a cogent sense of purpose. When he graduated in 2006 and went into active duty, he was ready to serve his country. He thought his swimming career was over.
Brad was deployed to Iraq in 2008 as part of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit. He served there for a year before being shipped over Afghanistan. The hunt for Bin Laden was heating up. The world was unsettled by terror and America was awake with purpose.
While stationed in Afghanistan, he trained his body and mind. There wasn’t much else to do, he admits.
That is, until Sept 7, 2011, when he stepped on an IED.
The 40lb IED (Improvised Explosive Device) was about a yard in front of him when it went off. The blast was significant. When he came to, lying in the Afghan sand, he forgot for a moment where he was.
To hear him recount the story is amazing. The entire audience at the Power Athlete Symposium was silent as he relived the moments post-blast, when he checked his body for blood, not entirely sure if he was alive or dead.
The recovery was grueling, as he describes it. Doctors performed reconstructive surgeries and removed shrapnel from his neck and face. He was on a cocktail of pain medication and sleep aids so his hallucinations were vivid, to the concern of the family by his bedside.
One day, before a procedure, the doctor mentioned that if the impending surgery were to be successful, then he would have less than one percent chance to perceive light and dark with his right eye.
Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to him that he wasn’t seeing with his eyes.
His hallucinations had been inventions purely of mind, not influenced by any visual stimuli. Brad Snyder was blind. He considered moments he would never again witness: the grandeur of the mountains in Colorado Springs, palm trees and waves caressing Florida’s Gulf Coast, sunrise and sunset in Afghanistan, which he says is one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen.
It would have been easy for him to linger there. He could have focused on all that was taken from him. Instead, he turned to gratitude.
His brain and body were working, when many of his friends lost limbs or died. He quickly decided that “blindness would not be an obstacle to me an [he’d] be thankful for every moment [he had] left.”
And when the support of those around him began to feel like pity, he says “I had no time for that, I wanted to show people that I was going to be okay.”
Moving Forward with Gratitude
Brad Snyder was okay. He was blind, but endowed with an incredible sense of gratitude. When his high school swim coach, Fred Lewis, stopped by to visit him, he urged him to come to practice – not to observe, but to get in the pool. Leave it to a coach to quickly take stock of the situation, refuse to linger in a fleeting setback, and focus on the the next step of the journey. So began the second life of Brad Snyder the Swimmer.
Brad returned to the pool and felt at home again. He says he slid through the water like butter. Still, he couldn’t help but bounce off the lane lines a bit and rediscover his timing.
Someone on deck that day told him that in this, an Olympic year, he should test for participation. He did. On his first 50 free (a new event for him, since he swam the mile in college), he bounced off the lane lines again, this time at a feverish pace, and by the time he touched the final wall he was bloody on both sides. Turns out, that tumultuous 50 was the 5th fastest time in the nation, moving him on to an official Paralympics qualifier. Brad moved on to Bismarck, North Dakota, swam in the qualifier, and his number one ranking came with an invite to the 2012 London Olympics.
From there, Brad admits, it would be difficult to write a more perfect sports story. As timing would have it, exactly one year from the day he lost his vision, he’d wear a new uniform, this time for Team USA, and compete in London as the Paralympic favorite in the 400 free.
So on September 11, 2012, Brad Snyder was led to the starting block in an 18,000 seat stadium. He couldn’t see how many had turned up to watch, but he could hear them. He could feel the energy. Brad says that when his coach put his hand on the block, all of the images of his early career came back to him – clear water, a ledge 50 meters away – he was locked in. At that moment, there was nothing else.
Brad says his race felt fantastic – the strokes and turns went just as he’d planned. His legs tired about hallway through but he’d trained for that. He couldn’t see the ledges approaching but he timed his turns with expertise. When he finished, he couldn’t see the jumbotron so he couldn’t know his time. Did he win? Did another swimmer have the meet of their life and edge him out? He heard 18,000 people cheering about something, but he didn’t know what it was.
After a few moments, his Coach leaned in and told him he’d just won gold – exactly one year after losing his vision in Afghanistan.
When they played the National Anthem he knew that the U.S. flag was being hoisted above all of the others. And in that moment, in typical Brad Snyder fashion, he thought of all those who helped him along the way. His family, his friends, his coaches, his brothers who carried him out of Afghanistan, and the surgeon who spent 12 hours putting his face back together.
He realized that swimming, that sports in general, had never been about one person; athletics simply served as the medium for the efforts of so many to coalesce. He’s convinced that individuals never accomplish anything truly great, communities come together to create excellence. He had perspective. He was grateful.
To all who were there at the symposium, I hope we can remember to routinely take stock of our situation, maintain perspective, and optimistically engage with our communities. We’ve found that toughness is good, it can get you through tough times; but kindness, gratitude, generosity… those qualities help create the great times.
No one tells this story better than Brad, so I’d encourage you to check out his website and pick up a copy of his book, “Fire in my Eyes”.
And I’d encourage you to consider where, in your life, there is room examine your perspectives, take a close look at your opportunities and challenges, and see if you can make a little space for gratitude.