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Blind Navy Vet And Paralympian Brad Snyder On The Importance Of The Items – And Ideas – You Carry With You Every Day

By Lisa Costantini and Brad Snyder | Nov. 11, 2015, 3:04 p.m. (ET)

Brad Snyder poses following the medal ceremony for the men's 100-meter freestyle S11 at the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Aquatics Centre on Aug. 31, 2012 in London.

Brad Snyder is legally blind. The retired U.S. Navy lieutenant lost his eyesight after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan in 2011. But instead of considering that obstacle a setback, he chose to view it as a stepping block.

A swimmer for most of his life – and captain of the swim team while attending the U.S. Naval Academy – Snyder came back from Afghanistan and exactly one year later went on to win two golds and a silver at the Paralympics in London.

Snyder’s is the kind of story mostly saved for the big screen, and next summer one about his life will begin production. But his life’s journey wasn’t without a little help. The Paralympian knows the importance of support from fans, especially through the Team USA Registry. The Registry allows donors to help Olympic and Paralympic athletes reach their full potential by purchasing a symbolic gift that represents an athlete’s needs. The gifts range from a pair of goggles to helping with the expenses of a guide dog.

To get an idea of what kind of equipment the 31-year-old veteran uses on a daily basis, we asked him to give us a peek inside his swim bag. Here is what he had to say about the items — and ideas — that are “in the bag.”

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From the third floor of my row home in downtown Baltimore, I can hear the hustle and bustle of my neighbors outside wrapping up their morning workouts, walking their dogs and getting ready for the day. They will all sip coffee, clean up, get dressed, and then grab laptop bags, suitcases or duffel bags as they get into their cars and head to work. I myself, intend to wrap up another cup of coffee, grab my swim bag and head to the pool.

In my swim bag, I carry with me a myriad of different things that all contribute in some way to my training or development efforts with hopes of becoming one of the best Paralympic athletes in the world. In a small, dry bag I carry my goggles and swimsuits, the same trunk style “drag suit” that I’ve been wearing since I was 11 years old. In the same dry bag, I carry the two sleeves that provide abrasion resistance and protection from damage that I might incur due to the fact that as a blind swimmer I crash into the lane lines – and crash a lot! I carry a manly pink chamois cloth to dry off after a tough workout, which saves room in my bag over a towel. I carry a water bottle for me, and a water bowl for my guide dog Gizzy, who helps me get to practice every day. I carry my favorite training tools, a pull buoy and FINIS Agility paddles. The pull buoy helps me isolate my arms, and raises me up in the water so I can feel faster. The FINIS Agility paddles help reinforce optimum stroke mechanics while also adding increased resistance to my upper body for additional training value. In an easy-to-access side pocket, I carry a small first-aid kit that I use in the inevitable case that I cut myself from colliding with the lane line or wall. In the opposing side pocket I carry some extra nutrition bars as well as some electrolyte tablets, given to me by our team’s nutritionist to help me retain water and replenish losses due to training or competing.

I put a lot of care and thought into assembling my “kit,” which is a habit I established while in the military, serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer for seven years. The stakes of that job were life or death, and the demands on an assault team member are substantial. We would often hike very long distances in very hostile climate conditions, often under the threat of an even more hostile enemy. It was of critical importance that every ounce of gear that you carried with you in some way contributed to your overall mission success. If you weren’t going to use it, it wasn’t worth the effort to carry it. I got teased by other members of my assault team because I was able to streamline my load down to what I prefer to call a “lumbar pack,” which my teammates were quick to call a “fanny pack.”

Despite this scrutiny on what we put in our packs, a 3’x5’ U.S. flag always made the cut. Part of the reason was that we could use these flags to signal our location to aircraft overhead, but more importantly the flag represented why we were doing what we were doing. In the heat of the moment, when your body armor and rifle sling are digging into your neck and shoulders, when your pack is weighing heavily on your back, your helmet is squeezing your head, when the heat seems unbearable and fatigue pumps through your veins like acid, it’s of critical importance to know why you’re doing it… in those moments, our lowest moments, all we had to remember was that flag in our packs to remind us that we were there to defend our families and friends from evil, to ensure freedom for those who are unable to fight for themselves, and to make the world a better place. Upon reconsidering our motivations, we would push on, and I am confident that there was no challenge my team couldn’t rise above.

I still have a flag in my pack, but it’s much smaller. It’s printed on a black swim cap with my name below it. The application and form has changed, but the ideals and motivations are the same. I compete to inspire my family and my community, in an attempt to continue to better the world I live in. I am no longer wearing body armor, but instead I wear a swimsuit, a cap and goggles, but by and large, I am still trying to accomplish the same thing.

I think out of all the things we put into our bags to carry with us on our daily pursuits, it’s the intangible items that are most important. Things like a positive mental attitude, a strong sense of mission, goals dreams, and above all the “Why?” behind what we do or hope to do are by far the most important things we can put into our bags. On the flip side, there are so many things we put in there that can weigh us down and aren’t worth the effort to carry. Negative attitudes, errant stresses, angst towards others are all things that can fill up our bags and place an unnecessary burden on our backs, and may prevent us from attaining success, contentment or happiness.

We are all going to face challenges. Life is difficult. I think that it’s of significant value to take time to prepare us for these challenges, then leverage a positive outlook, a drive towards a mission, a compassionate heart and so on in order to negotiate challenges. If we succeed, we drive on; if we fail, we do the same. In working through this drill we increase our ability to overcome said challenges, and eventually reach our goals, our dreams. Working through this process increases our capacity to overcome challenges, increases our resilience, and expands our overall capacity to be happy. I contend that in doing so, you actually pave the way for others to do so as well, inciting the improvement of the community, one step at a time. I know this sounds like crazy idealism or optimism, but I have seen it work, not only in my own life, but also in those around me. 

As you get ready in the morning, as you sip your coffee, clean up and prepare for the day, I encourage you to put some thought towards what you’re putting into your bag. Do you have what you need to empower you to be your best? Do you have the right attitude? Do you have a dream? A goal? An aspiration? Do you have a “Why?” behind what you’re hoping to accomplish?

Most importantly, did you remember to pack ChapStick? I think that if you are able to bring these things with you, success, contentment, happiness… well, I guess you could say that, "it’s in the bag!"

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Bradley Snyder