When Brad Snyder swims, he can't see the water.
He can't see his opposition, he can't see the clock and, most importantly, he can't see the wall.
But by just visualizing himself in the pool, Snyder is now London-bound.
The 28-year-old Snyder lost his vision after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan last September while serving as a bomb defuser in the Navy. But earlier this month, less than a year since losing his vision permanently, he was named to the United States Paralympic swimming roster.
He grabbed the world No. 1 ranking in the 100-meter freestyle at the Paralympic Swimming Trials in Bismarck, N.D, on June 16 with a time of 57.75 seconds, besting the runner-up by more than 7 seconds. He also set the current world-best in the 400freestyle with a time of 4:35.62, just 1.5 seconds slower than when he swam the race at Navy with full vision.
"I had spent so much time in the pool that it felt very natural and very easy," said Snyder, who was back in the pool just six weeks after losing his sight. "I look at everything as a new look and new approach, so I do my best with it."
The 2012 Paralympics will be held in London in late August. This summer, Snyder is training under Loyola University head coach Brian Loeffler and also working for Red Owl Analytics, a startup software company in Baltimore run by two West Point graduates.
Loeffler worked with his first Paralympian in 2007, training Philip Scholz, a blind swimmer who coincidentally finished second to Snyder in the 100 and 400 freestyle at the trials earlier this month. When Loeffler heard Snyder was spending the summer in Baltimore, the coach immediately tried to reach out.
"[Qualifying] is really a testament to his strength," Loeffler said. "He does not let his disability get him down. He's not bitter or angry. He's very focused on wanting to do well and represent his country and prove to others that you don't have to be limited."
Snyder, a St. Petersburg, Fla., native, swam butterfly and freestyle at the United States Naval Academy before heading overseas to serve his country. While the accident, which he suffered from a dirt covered bomb while on a rescue mission, forced him to hang up his brass, the Paralympics give Snyder another chance to fight for the United States, just in a different way.
"I've been able to find an avenue to say, 'I'm OK with blindness,'" Snyder said. "And I can still go out and represent the country and I can still serve, just in a different aspect. I think it demonstrates that I am back to my community."
Snyder, despite his strong showing at the trials, is still inexperienced compared to other members of the Paralympic team. He has a high ceiling for development and is still improving.
"How close he is from his injury and how quickly he has been able to reach the milestones that he has shows a lot," Andrew Borranco, a coach for the Paralympic team, said. "It really bodes well for him. There's a lot he can still do to improve himself as a swimmer."
While Snyder is considered a rookie with room to grow, another one of Loeffler's swimmers is considered somewhat of a Paralympic veteran.
Joe Wise, a rising sophomore who swims at Loyola, will compete in his second Paralympics later this summer. The 19-year-old suffers from mitochondrial myopathy, a muscular disorder that affects the lower body, core muscles and lungs. He uses a machine to pump CO2 out of his lungs everyday because his body can't do it naturally. At the Paralympic Trials, he finished second in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle, and third in the 100-meter butterfly and 200 IM to make the roster.
Doctors told Wise he wouldn't live past 15, but he qualified for his first Paralympic Games at the same age his life was supposed to end.
Wise is living and training in California this summer, swimming at 6 a.m. each day, then working from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. before jumping in the pool again. He usually returns home around 7:30 p.m.
Wise said he hopes to be an inspiration to young swimmers with disabilities because to him, there's more to swimming than just being in the pool. It's about showing what he can achieve in life despite the disease he suffers from.
"I want to have an impact on someone else's life," Wise said. "It's the stuff outside the pool I'm mostly proud of, because there's more to swimming than just swimming."
Snyder tries to see himself as an inspiration to others, as well. Although it is his first time competing in the Paralympics, Loeffler said many of the athletes look up to the lieutenant as a role model for his courage and perseverance.
Snyder and Wise never played the 'victim' card, but instead took advantage of programs that could help them continue to compete in athletics despite having disabilities.
Snyder's younger brother, Mitchell, said Brad didn't sulk after the accident. It took him about two hours to get over it, when anyone else would have had a long list excuses as to why they couldn't do something.
"When our family first found out about the accident, none of us thought the following June he'd be swimming again let alone making the [Paralympic] team," said Mitchell Snyder, who also serves as his brother's tapper during races to warn him of an impending wall and turn. "He's just taken every initiative to get over this and move on and do some great things with his life."
Wise and Snyder have only known each other for a few weeks because they've been training on opposite sides of the country this summer, but the pair spent time together at the Paralympic Trials earlier this month, often eating breakfast with one another.
There is a mutual respect and mentorship between the two, who each consider the other a role model.
"He's an inspiration to me," Wise said, "and I look forward to spending even more time with him in London."
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