A Year After War Wound, Vet Wins Paralympic Gold
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa BLock.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The London Paralympic Games wrap up this weekend. Record crowds have turned out and tuned in to watch the games where disabled athletes from around the world compete. The American team includes several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among them Navy Lieutenant Bradley Snyder. He is swimming exactly one year after he was hit by a bomb blast in Afghanistan. NPR's Quil Lawrence has his story.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The first thing you need to know about Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder is that he's a bit intense.
LIEUTENANT BRAD SNYDER: Chill out? What's that? Just kidding.
LAWRENCE: He's sort of kidding. But if you go to the U.S. Naval Academy, swim competitively and make the cut for the Navy's elite bomb-disposal squad, you're probably going to be the competitive type.
SNYDER: Crossfit, surfing, biking, running, swimming, you know, you name it I'm into it. Rock climbing.
LAWRENCE: The second thing you should know is that Snyder plans to continue doing all these things even though he's now blind. Snyder's last combat deployment took him to Afghanistan, where he defused bombs for a Navy SEAL team. That's where he was on September 7th last year, when an explosion blasted shrapnel into his face. He remained conscious the whole time as medics struggled to reach him.
SNYDER: I was worried about the guys. I was worried about what had gone on with my face, how do I get to the helicopter. I didn't really process that I was blind.
LAWRENCE: U.S. military doctors in Kandahar put him under for the long journey back to Walter Reed Hospital outside Washington, D.C. Two days later, he woke up.
VALERIE SNYDER: There was about 30 stitches in his face.
LAWRENCE: That's Snyder's mother, Valerie.
SNYDER: And a lot of wounds from shrapnel going in that were healing from the inside out, scarring, but he looks pretty much the same.
LAWRENCE: She flew in from Florida to be at his side when he woke up. That's when doctors told them his blindness would be total and permanent.
SNYDER: I stayed with him in the room that night, and at 4:00 in the morning he sat up, and he said: It's going to be all right. Don't - you know, Mama, we're going to get through this, it's - everything's going to be fine. And he's been like that ever since.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Take your marks.
Snyder away very, very quick...
LAWRENCE: That announcer on Paralympic TV marveled at Snyder's speed. In his first race at the London Paralympics last week, he won gold in the 100-meter freestyle. The blind have their own category at the games. A guide reaches out with a soft pole to tap the swimmers before they reach the wall for a turn.
As fast as he is in the pool, coaches and competitors talk about how quickly he even got in the water to start training only months after his injury. Snyder says swimming was something familiar that helped restore his confidence.
SNYDER: One of the harder aspects of my injury was not necessarily the physical detriment, but it's the idea that I got benched. I was with an assault team doing operations in Afghanistan, and then in a snap of a finger, I was benched and I wasn't able to be with my team anymore. But to be able to go back out and throw on this uniform, wear my flag on my sleeve and compete for Team USA, I used the term earlier get back into the fight.
LAWRENCE: Snyder says he still has hard moments, from mundane frustrations like banging his head on the laundry dryer door, to dreaming each night that he can see, only to wake in total darkness. But other disabled veteran athletes inspired him to compete here, and now he's hoping to pass that on.
SNYDER: I know there are a lot of guys out there who are - guys and girls, who are struggling with a tough hand, and hopefully my success here at the Paralympics can reach out to those people and say, hey, there is a way forward; there is something you can go out and do that will give you that relevance and success again.
LAWRENCE: Snyder's best event, the 400-meter freestyle, landed on September 7th, today, exactly one year after he lost his sight. His mother says for the family, there's something fateful about the timing.
SNYDER: Today is a great day because we're going to have great memories on this day now.
LAWRENCE: They will. A few hours ago, Bradley Snyder won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle, and to hear him tell it, he beat blindness. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, London.
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