On Sept. 7, 2012, exactly one year to the day after losing his eyesight to an improvised explosive device explosion while serving in the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, Brad Snyder swam to Paralympic gold in the 400-meter S11 freestyle.
That was Snyder’s third podium appearance in London, having already won gold in the 100 free and silver in the 50 free.
Snyder went on to carry the U.S. flag during the Games’ Closing Ceremony, President Barack Obama honored him on national television, and newspapers around the world quoted him saying, “I am not buried in Arlington. I am here in London competing, so I get a lot of motivation from that.”
Snyder took off the entire next year to reset himself, officially retiring from the U.S. Navy. He bought a house in Baltimore with his brother, and he finally found the time to fully adapt to being blind before jumping back in the pool to start chasing another Paralympic dream.
“The Rio experience is going to be totally different than the London experience,” Snyder said this week. “In London, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was new to the Paralympics, new to being blind. Everything was crazy. Now, instead of being the underdog, I need to attempt to defend my titles from London.”
This month’s 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships, taking place from July 13-19 in Glasgow, Scotland, will be Snyder’s first opportunity to race against his top international competition since London. He has cut his program down from seven events to three (50, 100 and 400 free), hoping to knock on the door of a couple world records.
|Brad Snyder speaks during the 2013 Team USA Congressional Reception on Nov. 12, 2013 at 101 Constitution in Washington, D.C.
But upon starting his next Paralympic journey, Snyder’s begun to see his expenses as an athlete rise rapidly, having to pay for everything from a stopwatch and guide dog to international travel and sports medicine.
And that’s why he’s been speaking volumes to the recently launched Team USA Registry — the new way in which he hopes to garner America’s support.
In April, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation launched the Team USA Registry, inviting donors to purchase symbolic gifts that represent an athlete’s need, which could including anything from swimming goggles to a sport dietitian session.
While most U.S. athletes accrue nearly $40,000 in expenses each year they train for an Olympic or Paralympic Games, the average athlete only earns $20,000 annually and is not funded by the government.
“If we don’t receive any federal funding from the government, then we need to be supported by the people,” Snyder said.
“We want to engage as many people as possible to build out the team behind Team USA. We want to engage with the community to build a personal connection with the spectatorship — the people who are following us and cheering us on when we compete.”
When donors purchase a symbolic gift, they will become a part of the “Team Behind The Team,” helping ensure the best possible athletes are sent to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, not just those who can afford to get there.
“It’s an unseen thing that we really want to bring attention to,” Snyder said. “We want to ensure that someone’s financial situation isn’t going to deter them from pursuing their dream of being part of Team USA and hopefully winning gold one day. We want to enable that opportunity for as many people as possible.”
Snyder knows that winning gold at an Olympic or Paralympic Games — or let alone just competing at a Games — can change one’s life.
“The opportunity to compete for Team USA, personally, meant so much,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t just about showing off a gold medal to kids. For me, being able to win that medal on the one-year anniversary was taking something that was very negative and traumatic in my life, and my family’s life, and turning it into a positive memory.
“We all had vivid images of me coming off an aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base with stitches all over my face, looking like Frankenstein, to going into the hospital at Walter Reed.
“I’ve been able to rebuild my self-image and really get on board with the fact that I can be as successful, skilled and happy as I once was. I just do it without the use of my vision. That gold medal represents so much for me, and I understand its power, and I really want to ensure that that opportunity is afforded to everybody.”
The Team USA Registry is also an indirect content platform to educate the American public about the resources it takes to become an Olympian or Paralympian. It allows athletes like Snyder to be more transparent about what training supplies and services are necessary to prepare for a Games.
Take for example Snyder’s guide dog Gizzy, who racks up expenses from vet visits to food purchases. Fans can donate one month of a guide dog’s care for $50 on the Team USA Registry.
That donation would be playing a giant role in an athlete’s Road to Rio.
“My guide dog means the world to me,” Snyder said. “I can’t just hop in a car and go to Home Depot to buy paint to paint my living room or any day-to-day tasks. Mobility is just something to easily take for granted. Having that taken away from me took away a lot of my independence. Using a guide dog to go get a haircut, go to the grocery store or whatever, has been really amazing for me.”
Snyder doesn’t take anything for granted these days. Not Gizzy, and especially not the magical moment when he walked his Paralympic gold medal up to his family in the London Aquatics Centre stands.
Gizzy and his family are just the start of the “Team Behind The Team.”
“I love the idea of the team behind Team USA, because it makes a lot of sense to me personally,” Snyder said. “Individuals can accomplish something great, but it’s when families or communities have a collaborative effort to a cohesive goal that real magic and true greatness happen.
“I lived a relatively selfish life before going blind. If I wanted something, I went out and got it. But when I woke up in the hospital blind, I was surrounded by friends and family who loved me very much, and it made me realize, this is what’s most important in life.”
Snyder will be spending his Fourth of July surrounded by the community that matters most to him — his family — and he hopes Americans take a minute to recognize and contribute to the larger Team USA community they live in, too.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.