Blinded during his Navy service in Afghanistan, Fletcher graduate Brad Snyder hopes to teach future generations of military leaders—and maybe win a few more medals
Light spills from an open garage onto a dark alley in Princeton, New Jersey. Inside, Brad Snyder pedals his red, white, and blue bike. He wears spandex shorts and a Team USA jacket with a flag on the breast. The only sounds at 6 a.m. are the gentle patter of rain and the steady thrum of his stationary trainer.
The garage is packed with workout gear—the bike, a treadmill, and a weight rack. Timber, a large German shepherd, lies in the middle of the floor. The guide dog and a white cane leaning by the door provide the only hints that Snyder, F19, turned the lights on for a guest—he doesn’t need them. On September 7, 2011, Snyder stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) while working on a Navy bomb-disposal squad in Afghanistan. He spent the next six days in and out of consciousness, finally waking in Bethesda, Maryland, surrounded by family. He had survived the blast but lost his sight.
Serving in the military fulfilled a dream Snyder had methodically worked toward for most of his life. Admission to the U.S. Naval Academy—check. Acceptance into the Navy’s elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit—check. Overseas deployment—check. Losing his vision didn’t change his inclination for audacious goals: One year to the day after stepping on the IED, Snyder won his first of seven Paralympic swimming medals. Then he switched sports to triathlon and won another gold.
Snyder, who is now 38, still has big goals, but he no longer has the luxury of focusing on one at a time. The alumnus of The Fletcher School’s Global Master of Arts Program (GMAP) eventually hopes to return to the Naval Academy as a professor of leadership and ethics. First, he must complete his Ph.D. at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He still has athletic aspirations as well. And, as of March 2022, he’s a parent. “Right now,” he says, “I would say my life is chaotic and frenetic.”
‘I Wasn’t Done Being an Athlete’
Snyder’s bike and treadmill face each other along one wall of the garage, a hint of pre-parenthood life when he and wife, Sara, worked out together. “It has been incredibly challenging,” he says. “Wherever I can squeeze in 30 to 90 minutes, that’s what I’m doing.” That means training before the rest of the family wakes up. This morning, though, Snyder’s daughter woke up at 3 a.m. He admits he’s already finished a pot of coffee.
That’s a big change for someone whose life had revolved around athletic achievement. At the Naval Academy, Snyder was captain of the swim team. After graduation he competed in triathlons. He returned to the pool within months of recovering from the IED explosion and qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team.
Snyder won three medals at the 2012 London Games. After medically retiring from the Navy the following year, he won four more medals in Rio in 2016, where he broke the 30-year-old world record for the 100-meter freestyle. Then Snyder decided he needed a new challenge. “I was kind of resolved with swimming, but I wasn’t done being an athlete,” he says.
In 2018, he began triathlon training. But he needed a guide to race—someone fast enough to keep pace, with spare time for workouts and to travel to races. There’s a short list of people who can check all those boxes. Fortunately for Snyder, 2016 U.S. Olympian Greg Billington was interested—but lived in California. The two met for the first time over Zoom, and one way they built their relationship was to spend hours chatting online during grueling stationary bike rides.
Developing trust was critical, Snyder says. Athlete and guide must navigate a 750-meter open-water swim tethered together with a bungee cord, a 20-kilometer tandem bike ride, then a 5-kilometer run. To save time, they leap onto their bikes barefoot and put their shoes on as they ride; they also remove them on the fly and leap from the moving bike to run into the transition area. “I’m putting my life in his hands,” Snyder says.
Billington could tell that Snyder had an uncommon drive. “It’s something you observe in professional athletes—they are able to visualize an incredible goal, and then keep that inspiring them day to day,” he says. “That was part of what resonated for me with Brad. He brought that enthusiasm to the mundane tasks that we had to do along the way.”
The pair didn’t meet in person until days before their first race. Billington stayed with Snyder in Princeton before they flew to England. A wrong turn in the bike leg of that race cost them time—but they improved with each successive competition. They spent 10 days before the Paralympics training at a USA Triathlon camp in Kona, Hawaii. By the time they arrived in Tokyo, they thought they had a chance to medal.
On race day, everything clicked into place. They emerged from the water in second, took the lead during the bike, and never relinquished it. They crossed the finish line almost a minute ahead of second place. It was the first triathlon gold for a U.S. man in either the Olympic or Paralympic Games. In July 2022, Snyder—a three-time nominee as a swimmer—received the Best Male Athlete with a Disability ESPY at ESPN’s annual sports award gala.
Snyder hasn’t raced since the Paralympics and isn’t sure when he’ll do so again. Maybe in 2023. In the meantime, he’s trying to stay fit. Despite the mid-40s temperatures outside the garage, he’s worked up a sweat on the bike. After about 20 minutes, he slows to a stop and transitions to the treadmill. He wraps a thickly knotted bungee cord around his waist. It’s his DIY solution to not falling off: drift too far to one side, it tugs his hip; drift too far back, it tugs his waist.
He runs for 20 minutes. Then it’s time for the family to prepare for the day. Snyder hopes they’ll be out the door by 7:45. “Candidly, we have not hit that mark in the last week,” he says before he and Timber head upstairs.
‘It’s Always Community Over Self’
As unlikely an outcome as “gold medalist” might have been for Snyder, “academic” might be even more of a surprise. “I wasn’t a particularly good student,” he says of his time at the Naval Academy. “I was more focused on athletics. I was more focused on wanting to serve.” After the 2016 Rio Olympics, though, Snyder realized he wouldn’t be able to support himself with sponsorships and motivational speaking gigs forever. He needed a career plan.
At the recommendation of a former classmate, he became an adjunct teacher at the Naval Academy. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “That was, if not the most optimal use of my previous life experiences, then it was damn near close.”
A chance encounter with the late Peter Ackerman, F69, F71, F76, A02P, F03P, a former Fletcher Board chair and Tufts trustee, led Snyder to GMAP. When he entered the program in 2018, he was not only questioning his academic abilities, but nervous about his visual impairment. “The way I engage with information is fundamentally different now,” he says.
Staff at Tufts helped Snyder scan materials he needed. And once a book or document is digitized, Snyder doesn’t need specialized equipment to study it— the operating systems on his devices include a Spoken Content function. With a two-fingered swipe across the face of his iPhone, the OS reads aloud everything on the screen. “I’m a big Apple fan,” he says.
Snyder also benefited from the hybrid nature of GMAP, completing the asynchronous instruction and discussion board posts from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, while continuing to teach at the Naval Academy.
Jeffrey Taliaferro, a Tufts professor of political science and lecturer at The Fletcher School, was Snyder’s advisor for his capstone project about civil-military relations. He recalls Snyder’s sense of humor and his drive. “He’s funny,” Taliaferro says. “And with Brad, it’s always community over self. His ambition is never directed toward the glorification of himself. Sadly, I think that makes him an anachronism in the United States.”
As Snyder settled into the program, his concerns vanished. “GMAP helped me rediscover that I’m not a bad student—I just was in the wrong mindset as an undergraduate.” It also sparked a desire to continue his studies.
‘To Make Myself A Little Bit Better’
About two hours after his workout, Snyder and Timber arrive at Princeton’s Robertson Hall and make their way to an empty classroom in the basement. This semester, Snyder is a teaching assistant for a course called Causes of War and he’s scheduled to discuss the week’s readings with a small group. To prepare, he places an ear bud in his left ear and reviews notes on his laptop.
Students begin to arrive, taking seats around the room. Two wear Princeton Army ROTC sweatshirts. Some flip through copies of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace and Other Essays. Eventually, Snyder leads a discussion about the Peloponnesian War, then splits the class into groups to debate the pros and cons of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It’s easy to forget that Snyder can’t see. He pivots back and forth to face each student who speaks. He gestures toward them to acknowledge their points. He also wears a pair of eyeglasses that shield his prosthetics from an accidental blow, which could damage the surrounding tissue.
Whatever doubts lingered from his undergraduate experience are gone and he feels like he has something to offer academia: His dissertation will explore the moral psychology of soldiers.
Looking back on his own accomplishments, Snyder cites the ancient Greek poet Hesiod and his theory of strife. Bad forms of strife, like warfare, can tear societies apart. But good forms can uplift humanity. He views his life through that lens. “Everything I try to do on a day-to-day basis [it’s] all versions of this good strife,” Snyder says. “This essential struggle to make myself a little bit better.”