BALTIMORE — “Where is he?” said Brian Loeffler, looking down the empty lane of a 50-meter pool at 7 o’clock in the morning.
To his right, a masters’ practice was finishing up. In front of him, early risers were doing laps. He didn’t seem overly concerned that his star swimmer had disappeared.
“There he is,” the coach said, and called to a man at the far end of the pool. “Brad, you’re two lanes over.”
As the swimmer moved along the wall at the shallow end back to the correct lane, Loeffler explained that his charge sometimes submarines under the lane line when sprinting the breaststroke. It wouldn’t happen if he weren’t pushing himself in the final weeks before the Paralympic Games in London.
And also if he weren’t blind.
Bradley Snyder is midway through a seven-event schedule at the Paralympic Games, which end Sunday. He won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle Friday and a silver in the 50-meter freestyle Saturday. A former captain of the U.S. Naval Academy’s swim team, Snyder never imagined he would be in this meet. Nevertheless, it marks his return to a sport that once helped define who he was, before bad luck changed everything.
In Afghanistan a year ago, a booby-trap bomb blew up in front of Snyder, a Navy lieutenant in an explosive-ordnance disposal unit. His face took the brunt of the blast. He now has two glass eyes.
Seeking a new path
As part of his rehabilitation, he got back into the swimming pool, where he had spent much of his high school and college years. Five months after the accident, he swam in a meet at the Olympic training center in Colorado.
To his surprise, his times made him eligible for monthly stipends and travel expenses to national trials.
“It’s just kind of fed from there,” Snyder said. “The more success I’ve had, the more seriously I’ve taken it.”
He’s been training for the Paralympics at Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Baltimore, the natal pool of Michael Phelps. But Phelps isn’t the reason he’s there. Snyder has an internship at RedOwl Analytics, a tech start-up in Baltimore. Being in the city is part of his strategy to find a new path, as a blind person, at age 28.
In the water, that means preparing for hazards that sighted swimmers don’t give a thought to.
During practice, he wears basketball “shooting sleeves” to protect his arms from the lane lines, plastic disks strung on a cable that are painful to hit on the downstroke of freestyle or butterfly. However, he counts on brushing the lane line at least once every lap, a maneuver that gives him a sense of where he is. He counts strokes and knows how many it takes to get him to a wall 25 or 50 meters away.
Turning is especially tricky. In races, at the end of each lane there’s a person with a stick that has a rubber ball attached to the end. As the swimmer approaches the wall, the assistant taps his or her back with the stick at the exact moment the person should initiate a turn. That way the competitor can swim hard without fearing a crash into the wall.
“It takes a lot of trust,” said Loeffler, 43, who is the varsity swim coach at Loyola University of Maryland and a coach of the U.S. Paralympic team.
After several painful crashes, Snyder admits he’s not entirely comfortable sprinting. He now approaches sprints with the long strokes employed in distance events.
“I swim with much more control, and I end up faster,” he explained. “It’s almost like ‘slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.’ We say that a lot in the Navy.”
Loeffler occasionally offers tips on stroke technique, but Snyder’s numberless hours in the pool — he started swimming competitively in St. Petersburg, Fla., at age 11 and was captain of the Naval Academy swim team in the 2005-06 season — have made that less necessary.
“Keeping good technique helps him stay straight and not pinball across the pool,” the coach said. Then he added the obvious: “But a lot can go wrong.”
A lot went wrong last Sept. 7.
Snyder and another explosive-ordnance disposal specialist were escorting a patrol of Afghan soldiers in Kandahar province. One of their jobs was to identify areas likely to be booby-trapped, to read the landscape for suspicious signs. It was a “particularly bad neighborhood,” he recalled, with a path that led through an opening in a stone wall beyond which was a irrigation ditch — a prime spot for a bomb.
Snyder’s colleague cleared a path over the ditch with a metal detector. He and five other soldiers jumped across. An Afghan soldier farther back, however, decided the spot was too wide. Against instruction, he chose a narrower spot to jump. He landed on the pressure-plate detonator of a homemade bomb. He and a fellow Afghan behind him suffered “traumatic amputations” — their legs were blown off.
Snyder, at the rear of the patrol, saw the plume of smoke and dirt. He went forward to help. To prepare the wounded men for helicopter evacuation, he got a litter to carry one of the Afghan soldiers.
“A combination of a couple of things occurred,” he recalled, without obvious emotion. “I was rushing, and I took a 90-degree turn around a wall. I missed [spotting] a pressure plate. It was my fault. But I was rushing to help this guy.”
The second bomb detonated four feet in front of and below him. He fell to the ground, briefly lost consciousness, and then opened his eyes. He could still see out of the left one.
“I actually thought I was dead. I looked down and saw that I had my whole body. I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense. That’s probably wrong.’”
That reassuring survey of self was the last thing Snyder saw. As he was helped to the helicopter, walking under his own power, his vision failed. Perhaps a piece of debris in his severely lacerated face moved. No one is sure.
His next clear memory was waking up at the naval hospital in Bethesda. Six days after his injury and after a half-dozen operations, he was told that his retinas were destroyed and that he wouldn’t see again.
Snyder describes himself as “a mediocre swimmer,” and not because he is blind. He’s small — less than 6 feet tall — and lacks the giant-limbed physique of a Phelps or Phelps’ Olympic teammate Ryan Lochte. As a club and high school swimmer, he gravitated to the long events — the mile and 1,000-yard in particular — because his size was less of a disadvantage and there wasn’t as much competition.
“I started swimming all the hard stuff just because I could get a better place,” he said. “It’s a little bit more about grit. There’s a little bit more of a mental game to it.”
Mental game. There’s still a lot of that.
He’s been told he doesn’t swim like a blind person, that he swims like a sighted person and that’s why he’s fast. Sometimes, in long practices, he forgets he is blind. But then he crashes.
“It’s like: ‘You’re still blind. Don’t get cocky, mister.’”
His best event, the 400-meter freestyle, will be Friday, the anniversary of his injury.
“It’s going to be a pretty amazing experience to compete on that day. To me, it means I’ve conquered blindness. I won.” He paused.
“It shows everyone, and shows myself, that blindness is my homeostasis now. It is who I am now. It’s not something that people have to be worried about.”
He says it doesn’t really matter whether he wins or loses.