OMAHA, Neb. — When Missy Franklin and Brad Snyder go to Rio, they will both be aiming for more than gold medals at the Olympics and Paralympics.
They want to raise awareness about global blindness and how easy — and cost effective — it is to cure in many cases.
Both swimmers are involved with Swim For Sight, an organization started by Dr. Michael Feilmeier and his wife Jessica, who live in Omaha. The organization brings awareness and raises money to help prevent blindness and perform cataract surgeries in developing countries.
According to the World Health Organization, about 39 million people worldwide suffer from blindness, 90 percent of whom live in developing countries. Of the 39 million, 50 percent have cataracts, a condition that is relatively easy to fix with a quick surgical procedure, said Feilmeier.
For Snyder, the cause is near and dear to him. A lieutenant in the Navy, he lost his sight after an improvised explosive device detonated while he was on a mission in Afghanistan in August 2011. A year later, to the day, Snyder won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. In total, he competed in seven events and won two golds and one silver at the 2012 Games.
“The travesty about that number (of people who are blind) really is that most of it is preventable,” said Snyder earlier this month. “Being someone who’s had to negotiate the challenges of being blind for the past four-and-a-half years or so, if there’s a way to prevent that, I want to support that as much as possible.”
Snyder worked with Missy Franklin at the Warrior Games in 2013. When he found out that she was involved with Swim For Sight, he jumped aboard too.
Franklin learned about Dr. Feilmeier’s work after meeting the ophthalmologist at the United States Junior Chamber National Jaycee Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, in March 2015. Both were receiving TOYA Awards (Ten Outstanding Young Americans). Talking with Feilmeier at the meeting, she was inspired by his work to prevent and cure blindness in Haiti, Ethiopia and other countries. With Feilmeier’s office located in Omaha, she thought she could help raise awareness during 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming and in Rio as well.
“We were thinking that Missy has a great skill set,” said Feilmeier. “You don’t have to be a surgeon or health care professional to help solve this problem.”
“Raising awareness is the huge thing because I knew nothing about this,” said Franklin, after she made her second Olympic team. “It costs $25 and is a five-minute surgery. They perform 200 surgeries a day, so over a five-day trip, they give sight to 1,000 people, which is absolutely incredible. To even have a small part of that is so special.”
Feilmeier has worked on global blindness since an international ophthalmology fellowship took him to Africa and Asia. He and his wife returned to Omaha, where he had attended medical school, and set up an international division within the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Ophthalmology.
Swim For Sight is the outreach and fundraising arm of that division.
“Our overall goal is to increase awareness,” said Feilmeier. “In general, there’s not great awareness of the problem of blindness. There are very few people outside the eye community that understand that 50 percent of all blindness can be cured with a five minute, $25 procedure.”
Both Franklin and Snyder are talking about Swim For Sight as they go through trials. U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming are being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, from June 30-July 2, 2016.
Snyder, who so far has won the 400-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, and 50 free in the S11 class at trials, is emphasizing how easy it is to contribute to changing someone’s life.
After Rio, Franklin is hoping to accompany Feilmeier on a trip to Ethiopia.
“It would be the trip of a lifetime, in my opinion,” Franklin said. “I’m really looking forward to keeping our partnership going.”
For information on Swim For Sight, go to www.swimforsight.us.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.