Brad Snyder and guide Greg Billington celebrate after winning gold in the men's PTVI paratriathlon event at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 28, 2021 in Tokyo.
Paralympic success is nothing new to Brad Snyder, but there was so much wrapped up in the road to his paratriathlon gold medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 that he is still sorting through all those “layers of weirdness” nearly three weeks later.
The first layer was the sport itself. Snyder won seven medals, five of them gold, in the swimming competitions at the Olympic Games London 2012 and Olympic Games Rio 2016. He made the transition to paratriathlon beginning in 2018 but as recently as this spring he had doubts about whether he would even be able to make the U.S. team for Tokyo.
Then there were the various complications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, from the exhausting protocols to navigate upon arrival in Japan to the strangeness of competing in mostly empty venues — a prospect he couldn’t wrap his mind around when he first began considering it in that uncertain spring of 2020.
“That just was like a mental backflip,” Snyder said. “How do you have sports without spectators? I remember that feeling, like, you’re going to have the U.S. Open with no spectators, the Olympics with no spectators, you’re going to have the Paralympics with no spectators? How do you even do that?”
So, no, the Tokyo experience was not what he nor anyone else had envisioned when they first began dreaming of the Games years ago, but something clicked for Snyder after he ran the gauntlet at Haneda Airport and got settled in at the Paralympic Village.
“All of a sudden you're just right back in the thick of sports,” he said. “And one of the shocking things was, it felt normal really quickly, which felt abnormal.”
As fluid a concept as “normal” is these days, competition remains a comfort zone for the 37-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, who lost his eyesight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan in September 2011. And after all of his memorable Paralympic moments in an individual sport, something about competing as a team took this particular experience to another level.
Snyder and his guide, 2016 triathlon Olympian Greg Billington, had a straightforward plan heading into the race at Odaiba Marine Park. Considering Snyder’s strength in the water, they wanted to open as wide a lead as possible in the opening 750-meter swim, then do everything they could to hold on.
Sure enough, Snyder and Billington came out of the swim with a 1:14 lead on Japan’s Satoru Yoneoka and guide Kohei Tsubaki, but they would find a way to increase their advantage on the field on the 20-kilometer bike leg. By the end of that ride, their closest pursuers were USA teammates Kyle Coon and guide Andy Potts, who were 1:47 back after the second transition.
Snyder kept waiting for the lead to shrink, but when he came around after the first of four running laps on the 1.25-kilometer circuit and heard from Team USA’s coaches that they were about 1:45 ahead, the situation crystallized immediately in his mind.
“I thought, wow, I’m in this thing right now and gold is a very realistic possibility,” Snyder said. “My destiny is in my hands, we can do this. We came around on lap two, and the gap, if it changed at all, it didn't change by much. That's when I knew gold is not only possible, it's probable. So my mindset went from, ‘I have to achieve big things’ into ‘don’t screw this up.’”