August 25, 2021

PU Grad Student Snyder Headed to Tokyo Paralympics, Moving to Triathlon After Dominating Swimming Events

MAKING A TRI FOR GOLD: Blind athlete Brad Snyder, right, with guide Greg Billington, breaks the tape after winning the 2021 Americas Triathlon Para Championships in late June to book his spot on the U.S. paratriathlon team for the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics. Snyder, who is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Princeton University’s School of Public Policy and International Affairs, will be competing in Tokyo on July 27 (ET). Snyder, who was blinded when he was wounded in Afghanistan in September 2011 while serving as a Navy lieutenant, previously won gold medals in swimming at the 2102 London Paralympics and 2016 Rio Paralympics. (Photo provided by Sara Snyder)

By Bill Alden

As Navy lieutenant Brad Snyder writhed on the ground after being wounded in Afghanistan in September 2011, he realized he might never get up.

“I laid on the battlefield immediately after the blast, knowing that I had been blown up; I was rationalizing that to say there was no way I would have lived through that,” said Snyder.

“I had witnessed a number of other folks in similar situations, none of whom were in good shape afterwards. I thought well I didn’t make it, there is no way I did. So I laid there kind of reflecting on my life. In a way, I had kind of accepted that I was OK with my death, I was OK with dying. I was ready to pass on and do whatever you do after you die.”

Snyder survived and while he was left blind by the blast, he was grateful to be alive.

“My experience is a lot different than what people think,” said Snyder.

“When people, including my family, got the news they dialed right into the loss of vision. But my experience was not a loss of vision, it was the gaining of my life. I didn’t think that I was coming back period.”

A star swimmer in high school and the captain of the men’s swim team at the U.S. Naval Academy, Snyder decided to come back to the pool to aid his rehabilitation.

“I could tell that people were really upset about my blindness and what my life was going to be like; I knew that I needed some kind of way to show people that I am OK, I have everything in perspective,” said Snyder.

“I was grasping for every opportunity to reestablish a sense of normal for myself and my family. From the age of 11 through college everyone knew me as a swimmer. It was my thing. Swimming was a very natural thing to do while I am on the mend. So let’s get into some swim practices and let’s enjoy the fact that I am still here. Let’s go back to my roots.”

A year later, Snyder competed in the 2012 London Paralympics, earning gold in the 100 and 400 freestyle races and silver in the 50 free in the vision impaired classification (PTVI). Four years later at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Snyder placed first in all three events and took second in the 100 backstroke.

Having switched to the triathlon for a new challenge, Snyder, now studying for a Ph.D. at Princeton University’s School of Public Policy and International Affairs, will be competing in the event for the U.S. this Friday at the Tokyo Paralympics.

For Snyder, 37, making the move was motivated by the desire to take on another challenge.

“I didn’t want to do anything better; you go back to that London thing, I could have done this turn better, I could have done that better,” said Snyder.

“For Rio, I did what I wanted to do, there was nothing left to do so I switched over to triathlon. It was a way to start at the bottom again, to be in the gutter lane and work my way back up. That has been a gratifying journey.”

Snyder’s athletic journey started in the gutter lane as an 11-year-old when he joined a swim club in Florida.

“I am comfortable in the water, it is not the same thing as being fast so I had to start learning things like how to jump off the starting blocks, how to do a flip turn and how to do the four different strokes,” said Snyder.

“It was very humbling, I was not very good at first. I remember doing the tryout, looking at my coach, wondering if he was going to let me join the team. He said, ‘go over there to the gutter lane where you go when you are not that good.’”

It didn’t take long for Snyder to be become a very good swimmer.

“I fell in love with it pretty quickly; what I loved it about it was that there was a very tangible, observable result when you work hard,” said Snyder.

“I worked my way up from the gutter lane to the middle lane and I was beating this kid and I was beating that kid. It kind of just escalated. I went from the worst kid on the team to one of the better kids and then I made state meets and this kind of championship and the regional cut and all-star team.”

At the high school level, Snyder starred for Northeast High in St. Petersburg, helping the team place second in the Florida state championships. Snyder went on to the Naval Academy and competed for its men’s swimming program.

At the end of his junior year, Snyder hit a plateau and was contemplating quitting the sport when he learned that he had been voted team captain and decided to keep swimming.

“It fundamentally changed my thinking, it filled that gap; it wasn’t swimming for me necessarily, it was swimming for the team,” said Snyder, a 2006 Naval Academy alum.

“The team wanted me around and the team wanted me to be on the roster and lead them through the season. It completely changed how I looked at the sport, it changed who I thought I was. To this day, it is the most formative leadership experience I have had. It is not what I thought I was getting into when I started swimming Division I. Looking at the cumulative four years there, a really, really rich set of experiences that set me up for success going down the road.”

When Snyder returned to swimming in 2011 after being wounded, he wasn’t focused on being competitive. That mindset changed, though, when he was recruited to join the paralympic program.

“I was getting calls from the Association of Blind Athletes guy, he was saying, ‘do you realize how lucky you were to be injured in a paralympic year? If you get enrolled and get going, you could go to the paralympics,’” said Snyder.

“At the time, I really didn’t know what paralympics was. I was fresh from Afghanistan and I was not so enthusiastic about it but I was open to the idea. This guy was persistent and I kept saying well I have got to get out of the hospital first, let me see if I can get a job and let me figure out about how to get out of the Navy.”

Once he started competing, Snyder figured out that he had potential to excel in paralympic competition.

“I went to a meet with a casual mindset and I ended up doing pretty well,” said Snyder. “I was No. 5 in the world at that point and I wasn’t doing it very well as far as I was concerned. I would go off the block and I would hit the lane line a lot. I was making a lot of mistakes. I thought if I am No. 5 with that kind of a swim, I think I can do a lot better. This is where the competitive juices came in. I actually could do this. I don’t know what it means to win a gold medal but I actually think I could do that. Let’s go for that and see what happens.”

Swimming at the 2012 London Paralympic Games almost exactly a year after getting wounded, some great things happened for Snyder.

“It happened so fast that I didn’t really have adequate time to figure out what I was getting into,” said Snyder.

“It was sort of like, now we are going here and now we are going there. It is like being on a Disney World ride, like things just started happening. You go to this thing, you have got to do that thing and you have to swim this race. It was though I was on a conveyor belt and I was moving through very fast. It was one amazing thing to another, it wasn’t just swimming either. The swimming got better and better and the races got cooler and cooler. I won, and then I won by more.”

After the competition ended, Snyder had another amazing experience, serving as the United States’ flag bearer for the closing ceremony.

“It was incredible; things like I really cherish because they are your peers voting,” said Snyder.

“It was a huge honor to represent the country, to represent the U.S.A. and to have performed at a standard and earn some love of respect from my peers. That was a huge deal and to codify that honor, I got to give that flag to President Obama. That was really cool for me to bring things full circle, going back to D.C. after the injury and all of that and meet the president was a really cool deal.”

At the Rio Games, Snyder sought to show that he was the real deal in the pool.

“I wanted to prove that London wasn’t a fluke and I actually really was a great athlete and not only was I a great athlete, I had the potential to be one of the greatest blind athletes of all time,” said Snyder.

“Not that I am a glory chaser or anything like that, but if I am going to do something I am going to do it the best that I can. I dropped a full 10 seconds in the 400, I dropped something like two and a half seconds in the 100. I even dropped a full second in the 50. The person I was in Rio was a fundamentally different person than I was in London. I had gained a bunch of weight, I was incredibly strong. I think I was the strongest I probably ever was.”

In adjusting to the paratriathlon, which is half of the Olympic triathlon distance, involving a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride, and a 5-kilometer run, Snyder didn’t get off to the strongest start.

“Each discipline has proved to be very different; I wasn’t able to jump in and be good at anything really,” said Snyder, who competes with a guide tethered on a bungee in the swim, riding a tandem bike, and then running with a tether from one waist to another waist.

“Even the swim was tough. It was not until this season that I felt that I was able to line up a good race. Finally it is starting to click into place, the conditioning is there and I am racing it the right way. There is still a lot of room for improvement.”

Finding out in February 2020, that he had been accepted to Princeton’s School of Public Policy and International Affairs, Snyder was looking to wrap up his paralympic career with the Tokyo Games that summer and then focus on his studies. But the pandemic intervened and Snyder found himself juggling schoolwork with training.

“The grand plan was to participate in the Tokyo Games last summer and then when I come back, I would leave behind sports and become an academic,” said Snyder, who is specializing in security studies at Princeton.

“It has not unfolded that way obviously. I did the first year of school while trying to train at the same time. It has worked out, I made the team but it has been really hard, really hard. School here is hard.”

Qualifying for the U.S. paratriathlon team was hard as only two athletes could go for the country and the decision came down to cumulative world rankings and a selection event in late June, the 2021 Americas Triathlon Para Championships held in Pleasant Prairie, Wisc.

“I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating either of the other Americans, but I was committed to give it my best go,” said Snyder, who was the second-ranked American coming into the event with a third athlete looming as a threat after winning a triathlon earlier in a year against other highly ranked competitors.

“It ends up I actually won that selection event. I beat both of the other Americans and that actually guaranteed my spot to make the team, which was an incredibly welcome thing. It was the first paratriathlon that I won since I started.”

In winning the event, Snyder got a big boost from his current guide, Greg Billington.

“Greg was on the Olympic team in 2016 in the triathlon; he is more than qualified to get me through the race course,” said Snyder. “It is really helpful to have his horsepower on the bike. We are setting ourselves up for success.”

Before arriving in Tokyo, Snyder and Billington headed to Hawaii for a training camp where they planned a grueling regimen.

“We will do all three disciplines every day, probably an hour’s worth of swimming per day, an hour and half biking, and then another hour running,” said Snyder.

“In that time, we will swim 4,000 meters, ride anywhere from 25-30 miles, and on the running we will do anywhere from 8-to-12 miles.”

While Great Britain’s Dave Ellis is considered the favorite for the event, Snyder believes he will be in the running for a medal. 

“Triathlon is one of those things where there are a lot of unknowns in every race,” said Snyder.

“Every racecourse is different. If there is a handful of things that go our way and don’t go his, we could be in the mix with him. Leaving him aside for a moment, from second to eighth place. I think it is up for grabs, the entire classification is very close. Basically everyone from second to eighth has raced and beaten each other at different times. It is going to be a really interesting race. I know what I am getting into.”

Over the last year, Snyder had gotten into the Princeton
scene. “It was a tough move for us last summer, uprooting in the middle of the pandemic from Annapolis,” said Snyder, who was working at the Naval Academy before coming to Princeton had hopes to end up back there after getting his Ph.D.

“My wife [Sara] and I have really fallen in love with Princeton. It is a really special place. I didn’t know it from anywhere else when we got here, and we really enjoy it. It has been the perfect place to try to do this weird thing of going to school and training.”

Looking ahead, Snyder believes he might keep going with his regimen of school and training.

“If you had asked me in February of last year, I would have said Tokyo is going to be the last one,” said Snyder.

“I have proven that I can develop. It wasn’t a ton of fun. I was incredibly stressed trying to make both school and sport work but I have proven that it can work. I don’t want to make a judgment right now. I want to enjoy Tokyo and make the most of that moment, have the best race possible, and see how I feel when I come back.”

Whether or not he keeps racing, Snyder has certainly made the most of every moment since lying on that battlefield in Afghanistan 10 years ago.