Blinded in Afghanistan, St. Petersburg Navy officer aims for swimming championship

ST. PETERSBURG — Brad Snyder feels at home in the pool. There are no curbs to trip on or cabinets to bump into. Just cool, soft water to envelop his body.

"I am comfortable here," explained the 28-year-old Navy lieutenant. "I can't wander off and get hurt. It is like my own little safe zone."

Six months ago, the U.S. Naval Academy graduate was working with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Afghanistan when he stepped on a homemade land mine that would cost him his vision.

"The initial shock wave knocked off my glasses," he said. "Then the secondary blast hit my eyes."

Snyder, who swam for Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, doesn't remember much about what happened after that.

"Next thing I knew, I woke up in a Maryland hospital," he said. "That's when I said, 'Okay, what do I do next?' "

Northeast coach Bill Burrows has seen many good swimmers during his 35 years of coaching, but Snyder stands out in his mind.

He was deliberate, hardworking, the kind of kid that never screwed around, Burrows said.

When Snyder graduated in 2002, he told Burrows that he was headed to Annapolis.

"I thought that was perfect," Burrows said. "I knew he would do well in the military."

During his years at Northeast, Snyder did anything that was asked of him, but he really enjoyed swimming the longer distances, particularly the 500 meters. Later in college, he excelled at the mile, a race that requires a strong body and an even stronger mind.

During his junior year at the academy, Snyder debated about what career path to pursue in the military. "I thought about trying to become a SEAL," he said. "But there was something about the problem-solving in EOD that really appealed to me."

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal units of the Army, Navy and Marines are often called the unsung heroes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The highly specialized technicians, featured in the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker, have one of the most dangerous assignments in modern warfare.

"It is very stressful," Snyder said. "You never know what to expect."

Cheaply made IED

The yellow plastic bottles that hold cooking oil are used to carry well water in Afghanistan. You see them everywhere — in homes, markets. Sometimes they are lying along roadsides — and filled with explosives.

On Sept. 7, 2011, the Navy lieutenant found himself in Kandahar searching out improvised explosive devices.

"I was just walking along when I stepped on a pressure plate," Snyder said. "The mine was a few feet away when it exploded."

For a few seconds after the explosion, Snyder could still see. "I could see my arms and my legs were still there," he said. "But my face was a mess."

A few days later, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the doctors told him that he would be permanently blind.

"Once it sunk in, I realized that I had to deal the hand that I was dealt," he said. "I was not a victim. I was not grieving. I was going to move on."

And so began his battle for independence. He started off small. He made it to the bathroom unassisted. He explored the hallway. Then he found the elevator.

"It wasn't long before I knew the whole floor," he said. "Then it was the whole hospital."

Before his injury, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Snyder loved to surf, kayak, paddleboard and mountain bike.

"I had every man-toy you could have," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to let those things go to waste."

Lap by lap

Snyder came home from the hospital after a few months and persuaded his 24-year-old brother, Mitchell, to help him run a 5K.

"I've always looked up to him," Mitchell said. "He's always been such a hard worker. … He has never given anything less than 100 percent."

The Snyders ran a 5K and then a 10K. Then Brad decided he wanted to get back in the pool. "It was a little awkward at first," he said. "But after a few sessions, I got the hang of it."

The truly great swimmers develop a feel for the water. With sound, smell and even sight limited, they learn to sense where they are in the lane.

"I found I could swim pretty straight without much effort," he said. "When I did stray a little to one side and felt the buoys, I would just lean a little to one side, just like you do on a surfboard."

But with no visual mark at the end of each lap, Snyder had to stop, touch the wall and then continue swimming.

That's when St. Pete Aquatics coach Fred Lewis invented a way to warn Snyder when it was time to flip, positioning a foam pool noodle across the end of the lane a few feet from the wall.

"It was either that or I was going to hang out and tap him on the head at the end of each lap," Lewis said.

Snyder quickly regained his old form. And now, after a few short months of training, he is aiming for the 2012 Paralympic Games.

Bismarck bound

Snyder will travel to Bismarck, N.D., in June, hoping to secure a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team.

His time for the 50 freestyle (27.66) is less than two seconds off the Paralympic world record.

"He's got a good shot," said Lewis, who coached Snyder as a teenager.

"He's driven. He's confident. I think he'll do it."

Snyder, meanwhile, said that once he conquers the pool, he hopes to return to the open water. Still on naval medical leave, he wants to swim across Tampa Bay with his brothers in arms, the Navy SEALs, next January in the Fourth Annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim.

"But nobody flies to the summit of Mount Everest," he said. "The only way you get there is one step at a time."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@tampabay.com.

Blinded in Afghanistan, St. Petersburg Navy officer aims for swimming championship 03/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 11:12pm]

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