The time between Paralympic Games can seem to last forever, but swimmers Jessica Long and Brad Snyder have spent their whole lives waiting four years for significant dates to arrive.
The Team USA teammates share more than just the unique distinction of having won gold medals on the sport’s highest stage. Both Long and Snyder are leap year babies, and so today Long turns 6 while Snyder reaches the ripe old age of 8 — at least officially.
Snyder said his father had a unique way of explaining why his birthday fell only once every four years.
“He was a really knowledgeable guy and read a lot of Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov,” said Snyder, 32. “He made me read a chapter in the Asimov book ‘Of Time and Space and Other Things,’ which explains how time is rounded off, so to account for that we have this day. So I was learning about math and time and other things, and being connected to that was always fun. My dad passed a little while ago, so it’s nice to be reminded of that as well, about how he explained things to me as a kid.”
Long said at first, the fact that her birthday came only every four years was one more thing that was difficult to understand as a child. She was already processing being adopted from Russia and being amputated below the knees at 18 months because she was born without most of the bones supposed to be in her lower legs and feet.
“I remember thinking, wait a second, my parents are trying to explain that I don’t get a birthday every year and that I’m special?” she said. “Special? I don’t have legs, I’m adopted and now I don’t get to have a birthday every year? What did I do wrong?”
Later, she saw the advantages of choosing whether to celebrate on Feb. 28 or March 1.
“I was homeschooled and I’d always get the day off on my birthday, so whichever was the school day was the one I’d definitely pick,” she said.
There aren’t many days off now for either Long or Snyder with the Rio de Janeiro Games just over six months away. Long is preparing to return for her fourth Paralympic Games and add to her collection of 17 medals, while Snyder is getting ready for his second trip after an impressive 2012 debut that saw him start his own set of hardware.
The two made the leap day connection at the Paralympic trials in 2012, and Snyder said it helped him to feel comfortable in his new world of Paralympic swimming.
“It was one of those little serendipitous coincidences that made me feel like I was in the right spot,” Snyder said. “I’ve had the opportunity to train with (Long), and she’s a remarkable person. It’s a neat connection not only from happenstance on the calendar, but she’s a role model in the sport and I cherish the relationship I have with her.”
Snyder had one of the most memorable stories from London when he won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle exactly one year after he lost his vision in an IED explosion while serving as a Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer in Afghanistan. He also won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, after setting a Paralympic record of 57.18 seconds in the preliminary heat, and silver in the 50-meter freestyle.
The years since London have been “interesting,” Snyder said.
“In the whirlwind of that year it was almost like I took a loan out on adapting to blindness,” he said. “Obviously I adjusted and adapted, but the real nuts and bolts acceptance of who I was going to be the rest of my life didn’t occur until after everything slowed down.
Snyder stayed away from the pool and retired from the Navy in 2013, and he did a lot of deep introspection. Now that he’s accepted his new future and new self, he said preparing for Rio means so much more.
“It’s such a different experience knowing what I’m getting into and understanding who I am and what I’m capable of,” said Snyder, who won gold medals in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle events at the IPC Swimming World Championships last summer, his first major international meet since London. “I’m going into Rio, I hope, with a target on my back. Defending my titles is going to be a completely new experience, and I think it’s been nice to settle into that new role, that new sense of self and attack new goals.”
Long, 24, knows well what it’s like to go into a competition as the one to beat. She made her Paralympic debut at the age of 12 and has been amassing medals on the world scene ever since. She admitted that staying motivated in the years since London hasn’t always been easy.
“Swimming is my first love, and it always will be, but at the same time as I get older it gets harder and harder to be like, ‘I should go to practice,’” she said. “It gets a lot tougher. But Rio is right around the corner, and I’ve definitely been training really hard and I am getting excited.”
Long hopes to compete in seven events, including two relays, in Rio and her goals include getting the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle to make it a perfect 4-for-4 in that event.
Snyder is hoping for, among other things, a world record in the 100 freestyle, which he missed by just eleven-hundredths of a second in the world championships, and he’d also like to add butterfly as a fourth event.
He also hopes to be able to soak in a little more of the Paralympic experience than he did last times.
“London happened so fast, before I knew it, it was over,” he said. “This time I want to take each moment by moment and really enjoy the experience for what it’s worth.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.