London 2012
Paralympic Games
29 August - 9 September

No. 6: From US Navy hero to Paralympic champion

Exactly one year to the day after losing his eyesight in Afghanistan, US Navy hero Bradley Snyder swam to Paralympic gold at London 2012. 26 Dec 2012

Find out which other stories made it into the Top 50 Paralympic Moments of 2012.

The seventh of September holds little importance to many people, but to former US Navy hero Bradley Snyder, it marks the anniversary of his tragic accident in Afghanistan when he lost his eyesight.

But in 2012, Snyder will remember it as the day he won Paralympic gold in the pool.

The Paralympic Games are full of incredible stories of the will power of humans who not only beat adversity, but laugh in its face.

But, as Snyder told his own life-changing tale to reporters at a press conference on 7 September during London 2012 - blissfully unaware of the faces staring in astonishment back at him - it was hard not to be simply amazed.

Eyesight is something we all take for granted.

It gifts us the ability to navigate our way through the world in front of us, as step-by-step we see life’s beautiful things along the way.

Snyder was courageously helping another injured soldier to safety when he took what were to be his last steps of vision onto a buried explosive.

As his story continued, it become quickly apparent that the swimmer knew blindness would not change his gritty attitude and stop him succeeding in life.

“I remember the sound of the blast and then I remember looking as I could see out of my left eye originally that I had both my legs and both my arms,” the former US Naval Diver said.

“While I was in shock and scared of the extent of the damage, there was a whole bunch of optimism that I looked down and I was largely OK.”

It is quite astonishing to have such levels of sanguinity in a moment so life-defining, but as Snyder’s infectious positivity rapidly transferred to those listening, it became swiftly apparent that it stems from his "lucky-to-be-alive” feeling.

“The way I got through it was gaining motivation by putting things into perspective,” Snyder said. “I am still here and I have a lot of friends that didn’t make it back, a lot of friends who we boarded up to be buried in Arlington.

“I am not buried in Arlington. I am here in London competing, so I get lots of motivation from that.”

Yet Snyder did not just compete in London, he excelled, smiling at his restrictions that seemed so redundant once he entered the pool.

After winning gold in the men’s 100m freestyle S11, and silver in the men’s 50m freestyle S11, Snyder quickly rose to stardom back in the USA, including a front page feature in the Washington Post.

And that was even before he won gold in the 400m freestyle S11, exactly one year to date from losing his sight and replacing it with two glass eyes.

It was quite a meteoric rise to fame for the 28-year-old, who captained his Naval Academy swim team before the accident, and he hopes to use this success to inspire those who walk in similar shoes to his own.

Although he lost his eyesight, his vision of legacy is clear.

“Another thing is that (my success) has become is a platform for inspiration,” he said. “I have the ability to reach out to people and to get them to do things that they might not otherwise have done.

“I take a lot of solace in that and I really look forward to the opportunity to give back to the community I am part of and that is the wounded warrior community.

“I know there are a lot of guys and girls out there who are struggling with a tough hand and hopefully my success here at the Paralympics will reach out to them people and show there is a way forward and there is a way you can go out and get that relevance and success again.”

Following London 2012, Snyder was honoured on national television in the USA by President Barack Obama at the White House and has arguably received more attention than any other American Paralympian in his country.

One hollowing sentiment from Snyder that echoed and imprinted on the minds of reporters showcased the toughness of the new-found situation that was forced upon him.

“Still, to this day, every time I go to sleep, I dream that I can still see,” Snyder said. “I actually have dreams where in my mind I am blind, but I can see and I am walking around thinking ‘this blindness thing really isn’t that hard and I can see just fine,’ and then I wake up to darkness and that’s tough.”

Every day he starts with this obstacle as rudimentary tasks of yesteryear now becoming challenges that must be overcome – but overcome them he does.

The fighting, determined personality that sparkles from Snyder as he came to terms with the dichotomy of his new lifestyle as a Paralympic champion showed that America has a strong ambassador in its possession.

And it’s mind-blowing to think that his Paralympic journey has only just begun.

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