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Wounded warrior seeks glory representing America in London

Dan Koeck for msnbc.com

Lt. Bradley Snyder, swimming his preliminary 400-meter freestyle heat at the 2012 U.S. Paralympics Swimming Trials in Bismarck, N.D., is about to be "tapped" by his brother, Mitchell.

Even in the water, amid a furious race to win back his confidence, the blind swimmer needs a cane.

Actually, Lt. Brad Snyder relies on two canes to avoid the sort of ugly collisions he has suffered repeatedly on dry land.

At one end of the pool, his swimming coach stands above Snyder’s starting block, clutching a walking cane affixed with a tennis ball. As Snyder nears that hard edge, his coach leans down, extends the cane and taps the Navy officer on the back of his head with the ball, alerting him to abruptly finish his stroke and execute a flip turn. At the opposite end of the lane, Snyder’s brother, Mitchell, is armed with the same device and the same task.

“Any communication between the tapper and the swimmer is illegal -- other than: ‘You’re close to the wall!’ ”said Mitchell Snyder, 25, a former college swimmer. “Of course, you’re natural instinct is to tell him how he’s doing. You’re the one who can see the clock and see the whole pool. You want to tell them where they’re at in the race. But I don’t give him any extra signals.”

The tap is merely one of the tactics and tools that Brad Snyder -- blinded last September by an Afghan bomb blast -- now uses to swim competitively in utter darkness. During each length of every race, he silently tracks his stroke count to hold a steady clip. He occasionally brushes a finger or shoulder, lightly, against the lane marker to verify his location. And, oddly, he must wear blacked-out goggles, by rule, over both of his blue prosthetic eyes. 

Lt. Brad Snyder lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan last September. The Navy officer is now training to represent the U.S. at the London 2012 Paralympics.

Through Saturday, the former Naval Academy swimmer is vying for one of 14 roster spots at the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials in Bismarck, N.D. If Snyder, 28, equals or nears a current world-best time in one of his five events, he’ll join the American team bound for the 2012 London Paralympics, held later this summer.

Wearing one of his old college caps with the Navy emblem on one side and the American flag on the other, he’s racing to again represent his country, this time on the international sports stage. He’s racing to help restore his self-image as a fully capable man -- a sacred piece of himself he lost when the IED detonated in his face. He’s racing to deliver a deeper message about thriving amid life’s occasional rough waters. 

Editor's note: This is the second installment that chronicles Lt. Brad Snyder's efforts to earn a spot on Team USA's roster for the 2012 London Paralympics. Read the first story here.

Racing the clock
“All sorts of people have contacted me on Facebook, or by e-mail, or they come up to me in person and say, ‘You really inspired us, just by the fact that you’ve moved forward, that you don’t let this thing slow you down.’ I want them to see that, hey, you can go out (despite this type of wound) and excel at something -- become a really good writer, or a good cook; it doesn’t matter,” Snyder said. “Hopefully, we can utilize this as a platform.”

That platform, he understands, will become far larger if he makes the 2012 U.S. Paralympic team. But getting to London is all about minutes, seconds and tenths of seconds -- the fewer of those during his heats, the better. And as a swimmer without sight, ensuring a brisk time is all about maintaining tight direction: the straighter he goes, the quicker he touches the finish line.

But, much like his delicate job in Afghanistan and Iraq -- dissecting and dismantling homemade explosives -- haste in the pool can be Snyder’s enemy.

When he swims fast and tries to increase his (arms’) turnover rate, he ends up almost pin-balling in the lane -- one side to the other, one side to the other -- ricocheting off that lane line,” said his coach, Brian Loeffler. “If he gets going too much and crashes into a lane line, he can just be stopped in the water and lose all forward progress.”

When he swam for Navy in the early 2000s, Snyder’s initial style was to dive in and sprint -- no other strategy, no clean technique, just winning on pure guts. Eventually at the Naval Academy, he began to hone his strokes, evening his pace and becoming more efficient. Now, he and Loeffler are focused on keeping each 50-meter race length (or “split,” in pool jargon), as even as possible to all other trips up and down the pool -- both in terms of his times and his stroke counts.

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

That physical symmetry allows Snyder to better hold his course and avoid side-swiping the lane markers.

“When he can keep a long, steady stroke, he has a real good rhythm,” said Loeffer, the head swimming coach at Loyola University in Baltimore. He also will serve as one of the assistant swim coaches for the U.S. Paralympic team. “We’ve got to find a balance between that kind of speed but also being able to be real straight in the water.”

Golden vision
Snyder’s best shot at making the American team, he believes, will come in the 400-meter freestyle. At the Bismarck trials, he’ll also aim to notch qualifying times in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle heats as well as the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley.

For each heat, he’ll don special goggles – not, however, to boost his pace. Swimmers competing in the Paralympics’ fully blind division must wear the black, plastic eye covers to ensure that they can’t see even a glimmer of light. That would give those swimmers an advantage in a sport that takes itself as seriously as any Olympic endeavor.

“When I swam in my last Paralympic-sanctioned meet, every time I got out of the pool after racing, an official came over and looked at my goggles to make sure he couldn’t see through them,” Snyder said. “But there’s another reason for them. If one of the prosthetic eyes comes out, my goggle would catch it. I wouldn’t have to ask someone to go search the pool for my eye.”

But behind those artificial eyes, Snyder has begun to visualize a blissful finish – especially if he makes the U.S. team. The final men’s Paralympic swimming roster will be announced on Sunday.

“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.”

If Snyder earns a Paralympic slot, his best race – the 400-meter freestyle – is scheduled in London for Sept. 7. That means exactly one year to the day that the U.S. sailor lost his sight after stepping on a battlefield bomb, he’ll be wearing American colors, swimming for gold. 

COMING MONDAY: Did Lt. Brad Snyder make the U.S. men’s Paralympic swimming team? 

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

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