Brad Snyder (left) is currently ranked No. 17 in the world in the men’s PTVI classification.
Brad Snyder, a seven-time Paralympic medalist in swimming, marked one full year of competing at the elite level of paratriathlon last weekend with a third-place finish at the CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championships in Sarasota, Florida.
But Snyder’s second season in his new sport almost didn’t start. His bike broke in transit to Sarasota.
Amanda Duke, USA Triathlon’s director of Paralympic programs, went into “emergency mode,” contacting every entity involved in the race to see if someone had an extra bike for Snyder. Luckily, she found an unspoken-for tandem bike from an athlete who was not able to classify for the competition.
“I thought there was a really strong chance that I wouldn’t be able to race at all,” Snyder said. “An entire team coalesced around me to give me the opportunity to succeed. It really drove home this notion in triathlon that it takes a village. You need a good guide. You need a good coach. You need a good mechanic. You need the greater Team USA behind you to succeed. I think that’s a really unique part of this sport, and I’m really thankful the triathlon community has wrapped its arms around me and embraced me.”
Paratriathlon has provided a new and exciting chapter in Snyder’s story, which has been told a hundred times over in regards to his career in the pool.
One year to the day since being blinded after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in Afghanistan, Snyder won in the men’s 400-meter freestyle S11 at the Paralympic Games London 2012. He’d go on to win two more medals in London and four years later, won a trio of Paralympic gold medals and a silver medal in Rio.
Snyder, who believes sports represent overcoming new challenges, decided he had accomplished enough in the pool and that it was time for something new. As an able-bodied athlete, he had once transitioned from swimming to triathlon, so he thought why not do the same now?
“Triathlon is infinitely complex,” said Snyder, who has now completed four races on the ITU circuit. “There seems to be a new lesson learned around every corner, whether it’s a new rule or learning something I can be doing better in transitions. Every race has presented a new challenge and a new lesson learned.”
The 35-year-old Baltimore resident came into the sport expecting to lean on swimming as his strength, but that hasn’t proven to be the case. His experience in the pool has been mitigated by having to learn to swim while tethered to a guide and wearing a wet suit in open water. He hasn’t been a strong cyclist in the past, and was once upon a time a good runner, but for the last seven years as a Paralympic swimmer he only focused on swimming and lifting.
In Sarasota, Snyder shaved a minute off his swim time from last year and saw drastic improvements on the bike, which has given him encouragement going into what will be a very important season for Paralympic qualification.
“The biggest thing I was looking for out of that race was to validate that the training I was doing is working, and I definitely saw some gains,” Snyder said. “I finally feel like I’m a triathlete.”
Snyder’s training regimen is completely different now than it was a year ago. His longest race used to be just over four minutes in the pool; now he races for more than an hour at a time. Rather than lifting weights and short-burst workouts, he practices sustaining his lactic threshold for long periods of time with workouts no shorter than 60 minutes. He’s still “shopping around” for the perfect guide, but hopes that will come as he spends more time on the circuit.
Snyder is currently ranked No. 17 in the world in the men’s PTVI classification and will likely need to be in the top 10 by next spring in order to contend for a Tokyo 2020 spot. The Paralympic qualification period will span from June 29, 2019–June 29, 2020, and athletes will account for their best three results during this period.
“I’m in what I now call playoff mode,” Snyder said. “I have to race a lot, and I have to race well every time. I’m laying the foundation for a great next year that will hopefully culminate in Tokyo.”
Outside of competition, Snyder was one of 14 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls added to Team Toyota’s roster last week in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“Toyota has really differentiated itself among sponsors to be one of the biggest proponents of parity across the Olympic and Paralympic brand,” Snyder said. “It’s meant a lot to us to be perceived that way and to be empowered that way.”
He’s also teaching classes at the Naval Academy, pursuing his master’s degree and is getting married in November.
“There’s a lot of life going on around me, so sometimes it’s hard to manage the length of my workouts,” he said. “The older I get, the busier I get. Time management is one of the biggest challenges.”
But the extracurricular that may cement his legacy in the Paralympic Movement the most is his recent appointment to the United States Olympic Committee board of directors, representing the Athletes’ Advisory Council.
“(My participation) escalated from having some ideas on how to optimize high performance to speaking up as a representative to make sure the athlete voice is heard,” said Snyder, who wants to be more than just a swimmer or just a triathlete. He wants to one day leave a legacy on the Paralympic Movement.
“I want to be a better person, and sports is an amazing medium to do that,” he said. “An often-overlooked component of sports is this notion of character. To be a great athlete over a long period of time, you have to be a good person and you have to be a person of character.
“Character is one of those things you have to work a lifetime to maintain, but you can lose it in a day.”
So far, Snyder’s legacy is spanning a lifetime.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the 2012 and 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.