Wounded war veterans have a special name for the anniversary of their injury: Alive Day.
For Brad Snyder, his first Alive Day was literally golden. On Sept. 7, 2012, exactly a year after a blast in Afghanistan cost him his sight, he plunged into a pool in London and powered his way to a Paralympic gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle.
His path hasn’t seemed to waver since. As Alive Day IV rolls around this year, he’ll be in Rio competing in five swimming events. He was also chosen to carry the U.S. flag for the team in the closing ceremonies -- no doubt in part because he epitomizes the kind of can-do attitude the Paralympics enshrine.
“Blindness isn’t an excuse,” he told the American Sports Network ahead of the Games. “I’m an elite athlete and I want people to see me that way. I don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh, it’s great that you’ve overcome so much. I want people to perceive me for what I’m capable of doing, not what I’m not capable of doing, you know what I mean?”
The 32-year-old, who lives and trains in Baltimore, is in demand as a motivational speaker and just released a book, Fire in My Eyes. The basic but powerful message is summed up on his website: “Embrace challenge. Conquer Fears & Inhibitions. Achieve Happiness.”
How did he reclaim a life that even friends saw as shattered? Snyder went forward—by going back.
As a child in Florida, Snyder, like Michael Phelps, was sent to the pool by a mother desperate to channel his excess energy. He swam for his high school and made captain of the swim team at the U.S. Naval Academy. Now he’s chasing, and in fact closing in on, his best times from those years.
He makes few concessions to disability in the pool, counting strokes rather than depending on someone poolside to tap him for turns, and wearing protective sleeves during training to buffer the inevitable slams into the lane lines.
Using a computer modified for the blind, Snyder displays both earnestness and a friendly wit on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. He offered a gentle elbow when a fellow Twitter user mourned that humanity appeared to be more interested in talking about Dancing With the Stars than reports of a possible extraterrestrial signal (later dismissed as a fluke). “At this point,” he wrote, “we cannot deny the possibility that the aliens are talking about the same thing…”
Snyder was blinded by an improvised explosive device while scrambling to help two Afghan colleagues who’d been killed by a separate explosion. He underwent surgeries to repair his shattered jaw and damaged face. Shortly after leaving the hospital, he went to a barbecue in his honor, only to discover how oppressive the pity of friends could be.
"It impacted them negatively," Snyder told CNN. "I didn't like that.”
Then, unexpected, a door to his past and future opened. "At that same barbeque,” Snyder continued, “my old swim coach came over and just being the person that he was, he wasn't one to exist on the past too long, he said, 'Great you're back. When are you coming back to the pool?'”