Former St. Pete swimmer targets Paralympics gold in London
ST. PETERSBURG - At a time when Team USA swimmers are soaking up glory for their Olympic medals, Brad Snyder may be the best world-class swimmer you've never heard of – even though his success started right here in St. Petersburg. Snyder spent years as a club swimmer for St. Petersburg Aquatics before competing on the Northeast High School team and later serving as captain of the swim team at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. All that was before he went to war as a newly commissioned Navy lieutenant on a Special Forces bomb deactivation team. And before an improvised explosive device blew up in his face, blinding him, during a September mission in Afghanistan. "Thankfully, the detonation occurred a few feet in front of me, saving the majority of my body," Snyder said.Fast forward to June when Snyder, 27 and sightless, broke two world swimming records in 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle events in Bismarck, N.D., on his way to qualifying for the Paralympics in London later this month. "He swam seven events and in two of them he's currently ranked number one in the World," said Team USA coach Brian Loeffler. He also won four swimming gold medals and three track and field gold medals at the 2012 Warrior Games in May at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. In the 100-meter freestyle, he's currently swimming just 1.5 seconds off his personal best at Annapolis – before the combat wound that changed his life. Snyder says his best chance of victory in London is the 400 meter freestyle Sept. 7, exactly one year after the explosion. "Being able to throw a flag over my shoulder in a different way, not necessarily in a military uniform but in Team USA's uniform – it goes a long way in making me feel relevant again," Snyder said. Others are feeling it, too. First lady Michelle Obama was so impressed after meeting Snyder recently that she mentioned him in a June commencement speech at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "What do you do when life knocks you to the ground and everything goes out the window?" Obama said. She found the answer in a conversation she had with Snyder. "He said, 'I am not going to let my blindness build a brick wall around me,' " Rebecca Hansen, the pool supervisor at the North Shore Aquatics Complex in St. Petersburg, remembers Snyder from his years of training as a teenage club swimmer. "He's just a great guy," Hansen said. "The nice guy, the hard working guy, the one you want to root for." Snyder's determination during rehabilitation at the James Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa amazed the physical therapists who worked with him. "Every now and then you get a patient who's just a miracle," physical therapist Lindsey Carhart said in an interview. "And that was him." Barely 10 weeks after the explosion in Afghanistan, Carhart helped Snyder run a 10-kilometer foot race Thanksgiving Day by holding his elbow to guide him through a crowd of thousands on the streets of Clearwater. Five months later, with his sister Elyse at his side, Snyder threw out the first pitch at Tropicana Field in front of a sold-out crowd before the second game of the season. He's spent much of his time since then out of the limelight, training for the Paralympics by swimming 4,000 meters a day in Baltimore and interning for an analytical company. "I'm in a groove," Snyder said in a recent Team USA publication. "I'm real happy with what's going on." Still, Snyder is already looking past the upcoming Paralympics Games in London to the next ones four years from now in Rio de Janeiro. That's where he hopes to compete in the first Paralympics Triathlon. He will have to swim, run and pedal a tandem bike. In November, when his medical recovery was still in progress, Snyder joked with a reporter that the only thing he couldn't do is drive. "He was dealt a bad deck of cards," said Hansen. "But he's just going to move on and roll with the punches and not feel sorry for himself." Snyder tells friends and strangers he encounters they shouldn't feel sorry for him, either. "There are guys who've been putting up with a lot worse than me – burns, triple amputees and things like that," Snyder said in November. "And those guys have some really inspirational stories."
WBAL-TV11 in Baltimore contributed to this report. [email protected] (727) 431-3448