Bradley Snyder lost his sight after stepping on an explosive. But that didn't stop him from dominating.
Within a mere two weeks of his injury, the former Naval swim captain was back on a treadmill—and a few months after that, he won two gold medals in the 2012 London Paralympics in the men's freestyle competition. Snyder topped that accomplishment at the 2016 Rio Paralympics by bringing home three more golds.
Now an advocate for disabled military veterans, Snyder is also the face of the brand Eone Timepieces' The Bradley, so named for him. The piece is a stylish, tactile watch that allows blind people tell time. Men's Health chatted with Snyder about the Eone and what it's like to be blind and workout.
Tell us a bit about how your Eone collaboration.
One of my good friends from the Navy had a similar career to mine, and he saw someone making a presentation on this really unique timepiece that allowed blind users to use touch to determine the time. Its face contains two magnets at the end of the hour hands and minute hands, allowing users to tell time simply by touching the watch. I was enamored with the concept. It's the first thing I’ve seen in the accessible world that was designed from top to bottom with inclusive design in mind. It's not just for blind people, though. Anyone can wear one and appreciate it.
Was this something you had personal experience with after your accident?
The biggest struggle was orientation. I got injured in Afghanistan and because of the damage to my throat and face, I was intubated for a long period of time, so I don’t remember the journey from Afghanistan to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.]. I woke up in Walter Reed pretty heavily doped up and it was a very disorienting experience, and one of the things they first used to orient me was the time. I had this little dinky talking watch that would tell me the time and that I was in Maryland, and from there I was able to figure out what was going on. Adapting to blindness is very frustrating because you don’t have access to a lot of things, like information or mobility. If I’m by myself, finding a bathroom can be very difficult. It was the first time I was a person on the fringe, on the outside looking in.
What are some of the obstacles you have to overcome in your fitness routine as a result of being blind?
It’s not easy for me to get to the gym or the pool. There are all these logistical considerations I have just to get to the building. Once you get there, how do you find your way around? I have to hire a trainer to guide me. In the pool, I have to always leave a hand out in front of me, or count my strokes so I always know where I’m at in the lane. We’ve got a system called “tapping” where someone stands on the side of the pool and reaches a long rod out with a tennis ball at the end to let me know when I’m supposed to turn.
My goal is when you watch me train, you shouldn't know I’m blind. Last year I was at the UnderArmour training facility in Baltimore, and a wide receiver from the Green Bay Packers was watching me, and someone told him I was blind. He was like, "Man, I had no idea. It's really cool to see what you do."
How often do you train? What’s your workout routine like?
I do Crossfit three or four days a week, where it's an hour in the gym doing warmup exercises, resistance bands, stretching, yoga to lead into the workout. We continue that effort through a warm-down and recovery aspect.
Last year [while training for the Paralympics] I’d train every morning for 2 hours, take a break, eat and rest, then I'd go for a strength workout. That’d be an hour and a half of high-intensity interval training, so it’s sorta Crossfit-y where you’ve got these super sets where you do barbell complexes or Olympic-style movements, but in between, instead of rest, you have sort of an active rest where you’re doing abdominal exercises or a shuttle run. High-intensity interval training is 85 percent effort spread across an entire hour. The idea is to train for that metabolic condition where you're doing a sustained max effort versus a one-rep max kind of thing.
The mentality when I was younger was if you want to get better, you just have to work harder. But you burn out a lot of athletes that way, because you’re not able to sustain that effort. Now with the emphasis on warmup and recovery, you’re seeing athletes in their 30s continuing to perform at an elite, Olympic world-style level.
Right after your accident, what was the hardest thing to get over in terms of transitioning back into a regular fitness routine?
Orienting using non-visual cues is very difficult. Initially, I was on painkillers and I had slight hearing loss due to a ruptured eardrum and none of that helped. Thankfully, I had an amazing support system; people offering to take me to the gym and to swim practices. I was up on a treadmill within two weeks of being blown up, and that’s because a physical therapist said, “There’s no reason why you can’t be active. We want to get you up and moving. We want to get you into this mindset of forward progress, as opposed to focusing on the things that you can’t do.”
For me—and many of the other wounded vets I have talked to—the people who were instrumental in our recovery were the people pushing us, who were focusing not on blindness as a barrier, but blindness as a mere consideration in adaption. That's the attitude that I've had from the get-go. Give me a task and I’ll find a way to do it. Whether it’s skydiving, mountain climbing, swimming, or weight-lifting, I don’t think visual impairment will keep me from doing it.
How has your injury affected your perception of how our culture treats differently abled people, or veterans, for that matter?
I think theres a fear. The active duty community represents less than one percent of the overall population of the United States, so your average American knows very little about what’s going on in Iraq or Afghanistan, what a Navy Explosive Ordinance technician is. This gap of knowledge causes a certain kind of fear or trepidation between the community and the veterans, and the community and veterans with disabilities. People don’t know how to treat me. They don’t want to over-help, they don’t want to under-help — they just want to do the right thing.
I’m passionate about changing the perception of what a disabled person looks like and what a military veteran looks like. Before if you asked me, “What does a military injury look like to you?” the first image I had is Tom Cruise in Born on the 4th of July — he’s very angry, he’s got a long beard, he’s pissed off all the time. It’s very hard to interact with that sort of person. We have this fear and this pity for the wounded vet. So with the Paralympics and that movement, we’re changing that mentality.
I’m not sad. I’m not mad. I’m not angry at the world. You’ve never met a blind person? Come over and talk to me and I’ll show you how I check my email, or let me show you my guide dog. I think the more you put that out into the atmosphere, the more people become comfortable with it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.