“Life is difficult”. I remember reading that first line of the book by M. Scott Peck The Road Less Travelled when I was about 18 years old. Peck’s premise was that once we realize this reality, we are not bound to the false notion that this life should be easy. Perhaps Naval Lieutenant Bradley Snyder understands this better than most. Snyder, who won gold last week in the Paralympic Games, was robbed of his vision while serving in Afghanistan twelve months ago. Yet the fact that his life suddenly became a lot more difficult has not deterred him from pursuing his dreams.
Formerly the captain of the swim team at the United States Naval Academy before graduating in 2006, Snyder was an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) specialist who was blinded in Afghanistan last September when a bomb went off in front of him. On Sept. 7, 2011, Lt. Snyder was rushing forward to help two Afghan soldiers wounded in an initial IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast. In his dash, Snyder stepped on a second hidden bomb in an irrigation ditch spanning a farm field. His eyes were irreparably damaged by the detonation and later were removed by a surgeon.
Snyder, 28, faces more than just a few new challenges now that he swims in total darkness. He wears sleeves while working out in the pool so that his arms aren’t scratched and cut up from hitting the lane lines. Turning during a meet is especially difficult for Lt. Snyder. At the end of each lane during races, there’s a person with a stick that has a rubber ball attached to the end. As the swimmer approaches the wall, the assistant taps his or her back with the stick at the exact moment the person should initiate a turn. That way the competitor can swim hard without fearing a crash into the wall. There are other challenges for this blind swimmer. While a swimmer at the Naval Academy, Snyder would swim as fast as he could during the final lap of his race. However, a constant pace is more important now since swimming in too fast spurts in the water could cause him to veer sideways and even cause him to become totally disoriented.
Many of us might be less motivated after losing our eyesight. We might be resentful or angry, and no one would blame us. But Brad Snyder doesn’t have time for that. When Snyder races on Sept. 7 in the 400 meters, he will be swimming exactly one year from the day a bomb changed his life forever. Snyder races with the same drive and determination that pushed him as a swimmer for Navy and that gave him the courage to face the day to day challenges of his EOD unit’s job in Afghanistan.
It was Winston Churchill who said, “Never, never, never give up”, and it is people like Bradley Snyder who put a face on those words. In an interview for a Philadelphia newspaper, Synder said a few things about not giving up: “I learned an immense amount about myself. What happened reaffirmed the character aspects my father taught me as a child, and what I learned at the Naval Academy. Go to Memorial Hall at Navy, and there’s a large flag that says, ‘Don’t give up the ship.’ That kind of mentality is imbued in you through difficult things. It’s what you learn at Navy, and it’s what my father was big into—not giving up.”
There are hundreds of other athletes participating in the Paralympic Games in London. All of them face the reality of a difficult life. All of them are heroic, not just in the Paralympic Games, but in their everyday existence. To see these incredibly strong and courageous athletes compete, see the schedule of events on this official link to the Paralympic Games. Other places to find news and live-stream coverage of the games are Universal Sports, swimswam, and GoSwim. The official website for the Games explains that the Paralympic Movement offers sport opportunities for athletes that have a primary impairment that belongs to one of the following 10 “eligible” impairment types:
- Impaired passive range of movement
- Limb deficiency
- Leg length difference
- Short stature
- Hypertonia (a condition marked by an abnormal increase in muscle tension)
- Ataxia (a neurological sign and symptom that consists of lack of coordination of muscle movements)
- Athetos (generally characterized by unbalanced involuntary movements of muscle tone)
- Vision impairment
- Impaired muscle power (there is a reduced force generated by the contraction of a muscle or muscle groups)
A little history behind the games…
Dr. Luwig Guttman, a neurologist who had moved to England during World War II, founded paralympic sport primarily as an extension of the rehabilitation process. As it has matured, however, the Paralympic Movement has moved its focus away from rehabilitation and it is now driven by sport. The London Games are significant because the origin of the games can be traced to a quaint village just northwest of London called Stoke Mandeville where the rehabilitation facility is located which was the first home for the games. In 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games involved only British competitors – all of them veterans with spinal cord injuries. At the same location four years later, the competition included participants from the Netherlands. In 1960, in Rome, the Paralympic Games were launched.
As of 2012, the Summer Paralympic Games include 20 sports and about 500 events, while the winter games include 5 sports and about 64 events. Swimming, sailing, rowing, power lifting, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby are just some of the sports in the Paralympic Games. To check for results, stories, and to get to know the athletes, go to the Paralympics facebook page.
It was hard not to be inspired by the 2012 Olympics in London…but the Paralympic Games, now happening in many of the same venues where the Olympic Games took place, is even more awe-inspiring for obvious reasons. Snyder recently told NBC NEWs that he was extremely psyched for the Paralympic Games in London, where he’ll swim the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle, the 100m butterfly, 100m backstroke, 100m breaststroke, and the 200m individual medley. He also said he hopes that his example in the water might make people appreciate life a little more. “I really hope to bring attention to the wounded warriors (fellow servicemen and servicewomen hurt in Afghanistan and Iraq). And I hope my story maybe gives people some perspective,” Snyder said. “You know how people get upset about silly things, like they get all fired up in rush hour? Well, let’s give them a story they can rally behind and say, hey it’s not that bad, maybe I should probably calm down a little bit.”
Yes, life is difficult. But I have a feeling that Lt. Snyder would agree with Helen Keller who once said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it”. Have you seen any of the Paralympics?…If not, check them out on the websites previously mentioned. Tune in tomorrow in particular to watch Snyder race again in the 400 m….and be prepared to get inspired.