Less than one year after being blinded by an explosion in Afghanistan, U.S. swimmer Bradley Snyder has won a gold medal in the men's 100m freestyle at the 2012 Paralympics. He also set a new Paralympic record during a qualifying heat earlier Friday.
A native of St. Petersburg, Fla., Snyder was the captain of the swim team at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated in 2006. Deployed to Afghanistan, the lieutenant was working on a bomb-disposal squad last year when an improvised explosive device took his vision.
At London's Aquatics Center, Snyder, 28, won gold Friday with a time of 57.43 seconds. He handily defeated China's Yang Bozun and South Africa's Hendri Herbst Hendri. He was even faster during an earlier heat, setting a Paralympic record with a time of 57.18.
To put that time in perspective, it would have put Snyder in first place in one of the early men's 100m freestyle heats at the London Olympics. In another heat, he would have finished in the middle of the pack.
As Bill Briggs writes for NBC News, Snyder seems to have used the success of other American swimmers in London this summer to help him prepare for the Paralympics:
"'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.'"
That mental exercise seems to have helped — although Snyder may not have needed much help. He came to London ranked No. 1 in several events, including the 100-meter freestyle.
After the race, he told Briggs, "It's an immense amount of relief" to do well in his first final. And he said that he wants to get into a competitive rhythm for the rest of the games. Snyder has a full schedule in London, where he'll swim the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle, the 100m butterfly, 100m backstroke, 100m breaststroke, and the 200m individual medley.
Outside of the Paralympics, Snyder competes in track, as well. In June, he and his younger brother, Mitchell, won gold in the 1500 meter race when they ran together at the 2012 Warrior Games.
It is Mitchell, 25, who often helps his brother navigate the pool deck to the starting blocks, and who "taps" Bradley when he's nearing the wall during a race. Blind swimmers use the touches, delivered by a long stick with a ball on the end, to help them determine when to turn, or when to lunge for the wall.
The pair were together at the Paralympic Trials in North Dakota in June, when Snyder qualified for London. And NBC's Briggs was there, too.
Here's what Mitchell had to say about that occasion:
"The moment his name was announced everyone erupted and I guess he got a standing ovation. He couldn't see it. And I didn't want to see it because I thought I was going to lose it."
According to Paralympic organizers, Bradley Snyder will race on Sept. 7, the anniversary of the explosion that injured him. But he's already looking forward to Rio 2012, where he hopes to compete in the paratriathlon.