ON SEPT. 7, 2011, Brad Snyder was a U.S. Navy ordnance disposal officer in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED, with his face taking the brunt of the explosion. After a week of surgeries, he ultimately lost his sight. Exactly a year later, the former Naval Academy swim team captain won his second gold medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, in the 400-meter freestyle. (He had won the 100-meter a week earlier.) Before heading to Rio for next month's Games, Snyder met with SI to discuss his journey and what comes next.
SI: Have you been able to step back at all and process the last five years?
BS: Because of the immensity of [London] and the surreal aspect of it, I didn't really absorb it as much as I could have. I had only been blind for a year, and there's a huge adjustment in how you perceive the world. Five years later, I'm more comfortable. There has been a maturation as far as adapting to being blind and in who I am and my place in the world.
SI: When was it after the explosion that you decided to get into the pool?
BS: The first weekend they let me out [of the VA facility, in late October], my community down in St. Petersburg had this big barbecue, and my old swim coach was there. All these people were crying and upset because I was blind. I didn't like that everybody was sad. My coach came up to me afterward and jokingly was like, You wanna come to Saturday practice? It was a Friday night. I was like, Sure thing, Coach. It was an off-hand joke, but I needed a way to return to normal as quickly as possible. That's where it started.
SI: You've said London felt like living someone else's life. What do you remember most about it?
BS: The most poignant memory is the podium after the 400. Leading up to that night, there were hundreds of Facebook messages from people in my life. Then I go to an arena that has 18,000 people in it, including my mom, my brothers, friends from the Navy, people I don't even know. Then there's people around the world watching. And I'm on the podium listening to the anthem and thinking of everything that's happened and all of those people who are connected to that moment. It was really quite moving.
SI: Obviously, Sept. 7 is a big day for you. What is that date like now?
BS: For me it's great to have an Alive Day, because everybody celebrates their birthday but none of us did anything special on our birthday. It's just something that kind of happened to us. My Alive Day, I was very much deliberately in that situation. It's a great day to just take stock and be glad that, despite the blindness, I've been able to return to the same level of happiness and fulfillment that I had before.
SI: Where do you keep your medal?
BS: In my suitcase because I'm on the road perpetually, talking to audiences. You put that gold medal in front of a kid, and you start to see that dream being born. Or [in front of] someone who broke their neck on an ATV or whatever, and they can see there is life after disability.
SI: There's a movie possibly, right?
BS: We [with co-author Tom Sileo] have a book that comes out in September called Fire in My Eyes. We're in preproduction for the film. I'm hopeful. I think there's real merit to the story.
(canoe and triathlon)