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From darkness to gold: Blinded Navy swimmer set to race at Paralympics

Lt. Brad Snyder lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan last year. The Navy officer will once again represent the U.S., this time at the London 2012 Paralympics.

The man who views only black today is visualizing all the colors of his London swims. In his mind, he sees the aqua-blue pool frothy with wakes, the home stretch of the lane lines painted red, and the dark, wide mouths of roaring fans.

Behind prosthetic blue eyes — replacements for the natural pair he lost after an explosion in Afghanistan nearly a year ago — Navy Lt. Brad Snyder soaks in the scenery of a dream realized. The 2012 Paralympics open today in Britain. Snyder races for gold Friday.

Already, though, he can glimpse a distinct, happy glow.

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“During the Olympics, I read about the races, about (Michael) Phelps and (Ryan) Lochte and Missy Franklin. I heard the commentary and used that to pull out the details to produce this image,” Snyder said. “But instead of reading about Lochte, I just implanted myself in there.

“I imagine stepping onto the block, hearing “take your mark,” the sound of the start, hopping in the pool then just being smooth and strong down the middle of the lane, executing some good turns, and hitting the pad at the end. I’m imagining success. I’m imagining the good feeling that comes with competing well.”

As an elite athlete — among blind swimmers he is No. 1 in the world at three freestyle distances (50-, 100- and 400-meters) — Snyder draws such mental pictures as a preparation tool. As a result, nothing in or around the London pool, he said, should feel unfamiliar.

Lt. Brad Snyder, blinded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is now training for the London 2012 Paralympics.

But in a life being rebuilt after severe injury, this ironic tactic is simply how the man endures.

“I’ll tell you a little story,” said his mother, Valarie Snyder. “He was describing his apartment to me: ‘It has the most beautiful rooftop view.’ That’s how our conversations go all the time. It’s been rare that he gets down, and even then he apologizes for it: ‘Sorry I was in a bad mood.’ ”

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The bright side is never far off. But total darkness came in a single stride. On Sept. 7, 2011, the former Navy bomb defuser was rushing forward to help two Afghan soldiers wounded in an initial IED 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.

Once a member of the Naval Academy swim team, Snyder returned to the water about a month later — this time, seeking a familiar, soft place in a world suddenly filled with surprise, hard edges.

“I was there the first day he got back in the pool,” his mother recalls. “Just to see the sheer joy on his face. On the ride home afterward he told me: ‘I can do this, mom. I can swim competitively. Everything new that I can do just makes me realize: this isn’t such a bad thing.’ ”

The warm water also rekindled an ultra-competitive, inner furnace, driving Snyder to begin training in Baltimore with Brian Loeffler, head swimming coach at Loyola University. His new goal: earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic swim team and compete at the world’s second-largest sporting event, the Paralympics. He punched his London ticket in June after a series of spectacular sprints at the time trials in Bismarck, N.D.

He strolls into London’s Olympic Stadium today with 226 other disabled American athletes — one of 20 active or former service members on the U.S. team, and one of six wounded during combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“There’s a girl who was in a coma for four years. There are people dealing with moderate cerebral palsy,” Snyder said. “It puts everything in perspective when I’m contending with my own little issue to see what everybody on the team puts up with. It humbles you. Every person on the roster is one of the most amazing people I’ve met.”

Yet each teammate also is an accomplished athlete who outperformed hundreds of Paralympic hopefuls to make the cut. For context, simply peruse two of Snyder’s post-injury times. In the 50-meter freestyle: 26.54 seconds — better than 10 Olympians who swam in London; and in the 100-meter freestyle: 57.75 — quicker than three 2012 Olympians.

The 100-meter free on Friday offers Snyder his first crack at a medal, and it unleashes an aggressive schedule of seven events over nine days. In addition to his three world-best times, he’s currently ranked No. 2 among blind swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly and No. 4 in the 200-meter individual medley. For each event, Loeffler works as Snyder’s “tapper,” using a walking cane to touch Snyder’s shoulders to alert him that the wall is near and that a flip turn or final push is required.

“His order of events sets up well since the sprints are early in the week (and) I do expect he will do well in his early events,” said Loeffler, who also serves as the co-head coach of the American Paralympic swim team. “(But) we have focused his training toward the 400 free.”

For Snyder, his coach and his family, that is the race of races, scheduled for Sept. 7 — exactly one year to the day he stepped on the bomb.

“It’s difficult to imagine and quantify the emotions I’ll be running through that day. But it’s going to be a moment that I’m going to enjoy. Because to me, competing on that day means that I was presented a challenge and I experienced some success in my transition to blindness. I conquered my adversity to some extent. Obviously, the adversity is not conquered. I’m still blind at the end of the day,” Snyder said. “But it means I’ve walked the path from being chained to the bed at exactly a year ago to competing on an international level at event like the Paralympics. It means I won a little bit.”

All of the people who huddled near that bed last September at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington, D.C. will be in the crowd in London — his two brothers, his sister, an aunt and his mother — who calls herself “a weeper” and who fully expects a gush of tears, win or lose.

“From getting the phone call that morning from his commanding officer to not knowing what we were about to go through to what we went through the past year and then to see all that he has accomplished, well, it’s going to be amazing,” Valarie Snyder said.

“He shared something with me not long ago. He said that every little boy dreams of doing something great in their life in sports. If you’re a runner or a swimmer, you dream of one day going to the Olympics. But when you grow up," she added, "you realize that was just a dream."

“He believes has been given the opportunity to actually fulfill his dream.”

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.” 

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