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Blind Navy veteran sees himself as triathlete

MarathonParalympic Games

Within a year after an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan cost him his sight in September 2011, Navy Lt. Brad Snyder had won seven gold medals at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., as well as one silver and two gold medals at the Paralympic Games in London.

"I originally got involved in the Paralympic movement as an aspect of rehab," Snyder said. "When I first got hurt, I had all these people coming to my hospital room and sending me Facebook messages and tweets and all that sort of stuff that said, 'Hey, we love you, we care about you, we want you to get better, we're worried for you.' So I wanted an avenue to show all these people that I'm going to be OK, you don't have to worry about me."

On Sunday, Snyder will be one of the more than 30 blind or visually impaired runners scheduled to compete in the fifth annual United States Association of Blind Athletes National Marathon Championship being held in Sacramento, Calif., in conjunction with the California International Marathon. Though Snyder has run a marathon as recently as last year — he finished the Marine Corps Marathon in just under five hours — he will run 7.6 miles Sunday as the second leg of a four-veteran relay team.

Athletic competition is nothing new for the 29-year-old Canton resident, who was a member of the Navy swim team from 2002 to 2006 and completed an Ironman Triathlon in 2007. Getting back into the pool after being wounded provided Snyder a welcome reprieve from the nearly constant stream of adjustments he had to make in order to function without sight.

"I struggle with toothpaste on the end of my toothbrush sometimes," Snyder said. "All these little mundane tasks in a day become difficult when you're not able to use your vision. But the pool wasn't anything that I necessarily had to adapt to. I'm very familiar with the pool — I knew where I was, and I knew how to get back and forth without hurting myself."

Adjusting to running without his vision has been a little bit more complicated. Snyder runs in tandem with a sighted guide, each of them holding one end of a piece of rope less than a foot long. The tension of the tether and vocal cues from his partner are all Snyder has to take the place of the visual feedback most runners take for granted.

In California, Snyder will be guided by Danielle Zemola, a volunteer from Florida who won an essay contest sponsored by the Delta Gamma fraternity. In both the Warrior Games and the Marine Corps Marathon, Snyder ran with his younger brother Russell, who was a 2009 NAIA cross country All-American at Embry-Riddle.

"Being able to run with him was really nice," Snyder said. "For one, he's my brother, so we have an organic chemistry, anyway. Secondly, the pace differential is really high; he is way faster than me, which is nice. He's able to communicate things to me during the race and he was able to match my stride, which is convenient."

Snyder recently retired from the Navy and has been training with Loyola swimming coach Brian Loeffler with the goal of competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. His medals in the London games all came in freestyle swimming events, but Snyder is working toward qualifying for the paratriathlon as well.

"I would love to add that to my competition schedule," Snyder said. "Right now, in my pie-in-the-sky vision, I definitely want to be that two-sport athlete. But from a realistic point of view, if it detracts from my ability to compete in the pool I'll drop it from the program, because swimming will be my priority."

Although his return to competitive athletics has so far yielded much personal success, Snyder said his primary goal is to inspire others to transcend whatever obstacles they encounter.

"Everyone faces challenges in their daily life," Snyder said. "It doesn't always take the form of visual impairment. Hopefully, my performance will inspire people to adopt a positive outlook and face those challenges with a lot of courage and virtue."

emeany@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ericmeany

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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