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The phrase “based on a true story” is about to become very significant for Brad Snyder.
The blind veteran-turned-paralympic athlete’s past four years of ups and downs will soon be played out on screen in a feature film adaptation.
His story’s cinematic quality is easy to see: On the one-year anniversary of Snyder losing his sight during a tour in Afghanistan, he cinched the gold medal at the London Paralympics.
“That doesn’t happen in real life,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively. “It happens in Disney movies. It happens in books. You can’t write it up better than it happened.”
But Snyder’s story – and his passion for the sport – began long before his Paralympic win.
Growing up in Florida, he excelled in the pool from an early age. “I don’t remember learning how to swim,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned I’ve always known.”
His love for swimming and a desire to serve his country lead to Snyder enrolling at the Naval Academy and gain inga place on the school’s swim team. However, like many college athletes, Snyder lost his momentum to go the professional route during his university years, and instead focused on his future career in the military.
And for seven years post-college, that’s what he did. He worked in explosive ordnance disposal – a more formal term for “bomb squad,” Snyder says. Throughout his military tenure, he had two deployments, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
A Life-Changing Accident
During the latter tour, his job was to work with Afghan special forces to conduct raids on locales where they thought Taliban operatives. On one of these raids, Snyder was working to transport two of his fellow service members who had been injured to medical care when he stepped on an explosive himself.
The damage, Snyder says, could have been much worse. His limbs were left intact, and the bulk of his major body functions were not altered. But the lack of blood and external damage to the rest of his body was so shocking that at first, Snyder was convinced he was dead.
“In that moment, I had thought through everything and had reconciled my death, and thought, ‘I’m okay. I’m okay to pass on,’ ” he says.
What was impacted by the blast, however, was his sight: One explosion and two surgeries later, he was blind.
“The fact that I came back, at first, was scary,” he says. “But after being able to recover, being in the hospital with my family, it allowed me to put into perspective – that I was very fortunate to still be alive.”
He didn’t stay down for long: Three weeks after the explosion, he was running on a treadmill. After five weeks, he ran a 5K. But while he enjoyed the exercise and pushing himself, he wasn’t thinking about pursuing physical endeavors as anything more than a hobby. He was more concerned with getting back to school and possibly pursuing an MBA.
But after being approached multiple times by programs that aim to get veterans involved with adaptive athletics, his tune started to change. At first, he tried track and field events, but when he learned about the opportunity for adaptive swimming, it was a natural fit.
“I rejected the notion initially,” he said. “But then I saw an opportunity to prove to my family and my community that I wasn’t going to be a victim.”
The year that followed was nothing short of “magical,” Snyder says. Without any training, he was ranked fifth in the nation following his first swim at a meet at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. After a few months of practice, he was ranked first. Before he even realized it himself, he says, his family, friends, and supporters in the paralympic world were hoping for a spot in London for him.
“It was like a dream I had about being an Olympian had morphed into now being a paralympian,” he says. “Something came true that I didn’t necessarily recognize the importance of it while it was happening.”
But it was hard to ignore the significance of his swimming when Snyder won a gold medal at the London Paralympics – exactly a year (down to the day) after the explosion that took his vision occurred in Afghanistan.
The pressure of the day may have been anxiety-inducing, he admits, but when it all came together, the effect was overwhelming.
“It was such a tangible representation of how we had turned everything around,” he says. “The gold medal replaces all the negativity of the day that I was blinded.”
London, however, was just the beginning. Now, he’s busy with preparation for the upcoming movie, for which he’s consulting on the script. The project is exciting, but there’s an undeniable element of questioning that comes along with it, too, he says.
“There’s some level of fear,” Snyder says. “Will I like the representation of myself? Will they carry the message in the right way?”
This fear is placated by the “amazing” team that’s working on the film – and Snyder says he trusts them to tell his story. (Although if he had to choose, he’d pick Joseph Gordon-Levitt to portray him.)
But the movie is just part of what he’s tackling: He’s also gearing up to write a book about his experiences – and he’s getting ready to compete again in Rio next year.
“Every day I wake up and want to pinch myself,” he says. “I never aimed to do anything extraordinary. I just did what I thought what make my family proud and make me proud.”