Brad Snyder talks historic first triathlon gold for USA and that moment in Afghanistan

Brad Snyder became the first U.S. man to win a medal in an individual Paralympic or Olympic triathlon. He talks about his journey, the blast in Afghanistan that cost his sight, Paris 2024 and the essential support he gets from his wife and team.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Brad Snyder is used to making global headlines.

A five-time Paralympic swimming gold medallist even before he rocked up to Tokyo 2020, now he's won the United States' first ever triathlon with guide Greg Billington - and he did it at the first attempt.

"I'm incredibly proud to be a gold medalist for Team USA in the sport of triathlon," he told Olympics.com.

"And I think my victory was a testament to the team dynamic that we've been able to establish. The Paratriathlon team is a really special group of remarkable individuals."

Snyder's own remarkable story goes back to Afghanistan when he lost his sight after an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) went off. Since then the Navy vet has dedicated a life to sport and the Paralympics, pushing the boundaries and reshaping perceptions.

Read on for this inspiring full interview with the Paralympic star.

Brad Snyder: "By far my favourite podium"

Snyder won a historic triathlon in 1:01.16, a full 55 seconds ahead of Spain's Hector Catala with guide Gustavo Rodriguez Iglesias who claimed silver and Japan's YONEOKA Satoru with guide Kohei Tsubaki (+1.04) in bronze.

Olympics.com (OL): Triathlon is a huge sport in the United States, but you are the first US man, Olympic or Paralympic, to win gold in a triathlon event. How proud does that make you?

Brad Snyder (BS): I'm incredibly proud... We've been training together now for three weeks, getting ready for the Games and for every athlete who has been able to stand on top of the podium we've had another three or four who have been right there with us every step of the way.

And the most prideful moment for me on the podium yesterday was to hear my teammates calling to me and making them proud. So I'm really excited to be a gold medallist in this sport, but I know it's in large part due to my team.

BS: It was such a glorious moment. And you were there together with your guide Greg Billington...

Having stood on the podium a number of times by myself, I can tell you unequivocally it was by far my favorite podium to stand up there with Greg and share that moment with him after doing it together. The thing about that last bit of the run course, doing it with Greg, he's right there and I know that I have to push through because I don't want to disappoint him, he's worked just as hard as I have.

So the team dynamic is just such an awesome and rewarding part of triathlon versus some of my other exploits in the Paralympic domain. What's been amazing about racing with Greg is that Greg has not only stepped in as a guide, but he's helped me out as a mentor, as a coach and now as a friend...

We've been able to train together stride for stride, stroke for stroke over the last three weeks. And we've really bonded as friends, as teammates and as competitors.

Snyder and Billington to race together at Paris 2024?

OL: Were you surprised?

BS: You know, it's tough. The words expectation and surprise come up a lot. I don't know that it was either. I think I certainly hoped for that outcome. I trained with that outcome. I visualised that outcome even really just exactly that way. I thought I could go into the run with about a minute forty to two minute gap.

And I thought if I run the race that I'm capable of, I can have that gap. And if I run my heart out, I can hold that gap and win. So I thought it was possible. I dreamed it. I thought about it. I visualised it, so it's not a surprise. It's what I wanted.

But if you were to ask me realistically before the race, I probably would have said it might happen, it might not. So for me to go into the run with that gap and then to hold that gap and to come across the finish line first, that's what you see in the video.

You know, when I'm training for the Paralympics, it's all I think about. Every time I run, every time I ride the bike, every time I swim, I'm visualising Tokyo Bay and I'm visualising the bike course and I'm visualising that finish line. I'm visualizing that tape that I get to grab with my hands.

And then when it comes true in real life, it's really special.

OL: It's a 'stronger together' moment for sure, so can we expect you guys to be together again for Paris?

BS: We've been talking a lot about it. Yeah. And I think both of us finished yesterday thinking that there was still gas in the tank. Like, there's still more we can do. We can go faster than that. Realistically, that run split was not that great for me. And the fact of the matter is, I didn't have to run that fast because I had a big gap.

We had a really great swim. We had a really great bike. I have room for improvement on the run. I have room for improvement in some of the transitions... And Greg has really helped me find a lot of that potential.

So I think when you look at all of that room for improvement and how fun it was to race, you know, why not go on to Paris?

It's only three more years.

OL: Have you lost count of all the medals you've won?!

BS: No, (Laughs), I have eight medals total. Six gold now and two silver.

Why did Brad Snyder switch from swimming to triathlon?

OL: Seven of those eight medals came in swimming, so why the switch?

BS: So I think that for me, what I love about sport is the accountability you experience about trying to be the best version of yourself every day and to succeed at the elite level, you really have to be the best version of yourself at the exact right time.

And every day that you're training, you know that your competition is out there somewhere, training as well. I really like being pushed to being the best version of myself. When I finished the Rio Games, I felt like my real performance was the best I could do in the pool. I thought that the three golds and the world record was just an amazing program. I couldn't imagine doing something different than that.

But at the same time, I knew in my heart that I wasn't done being an athlete yet, so I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to have to have something to train for, but I needed it to be different.

Triathlon offered me a really rich landscape of new challenges and it's been a really rewarding journey.

When I started in 2017, 2018, I had a lot to figure out. I had a lot of new fitness to gain and it's been really gratifying to be able to race at this level this season and especially come away with a victory - my first major international victory at the Paralympics. So it's perfect timing and it's been really awesome.

The Paralympic postponement: "It was a difficult year"

OL: Did the pandemic affect your plans and what were you feeling when the postponement news came through?

BS: I think initially the pandemic slowed me down. It was a difficult year. I had my guide dog pass away, then I had committed to going to school after the Tokyo Games in 2020. And the idea of trying to do graduate school and try triathlon training on top of each other I just didn't think was possible.

But my wife was very supportive and we figured it out and I think we were able to eventually use the Covid year to our advantage. In the summer of 2020, I think I took a step back. But then I was able to take two steps forward from the winter of last year to now.

And so I think for every one of us, we look at these challenges and you can either allow the challenge to get in your way or you can allow the challenge to come to you can meet the challenge to be the best version of yourself. And I think we were able to do that over the last year.

Brad Snyder on losing his guide dog

OL: You just mentioned about your guide dog passing away, unfortunately. Can you tell us more about your guide dog and what kind of bond was that like?

BS: Yeah, so I'm a very active, blind person and I like to get around and do a lot. And I'm always constantly giving speeches or teaching classes or learning or going from here to there. And as a blind person, that's obviously a major struggle to being able to lean on a guide dog to help me get from point A to point B was really freeing for me and really allowed me to do quite a bit over the last seven years.

My guide dog Gizzy, who I adopted in 2013, unfortunately got sick. She had a spinal cord problem where she was slowly becoming paralysed from her back feet. We had to put her down in February of 2020 right before the pandemic and there was really sad and my wife and I took it pretty hard and it was a difficult year, especially with the pandemic and everything else.

But I have good news. This year we felt ready to adopt a new guide dog, so I just adopted a new guide dog, his name is Timber, but we called him Mr T. He will come back to us on Wednesday and he'll take me to school on Thursday, so I'm really excited to get back with my boy, Mr. T.

Is the Ironman next up for Snyder?

OL: About your future ambitions, would you maybe like to try an Ironman Triathlon one day as well? Is that in your plans?

BS: I don't know that it's in the plan, but maybe it's in my dreams. We just did a Team USA camp in Kona (In Hawaii, where the Ironman World Championship is held) at the start line for the Ironman triathlon there.

And it was one of the most beautiful places to swim when we were training for Tokyo, dolphins came up and swam next to us... it was awesome.

So we were in paradise in Kona. And I told Greg, I thought, why wouldn't we want to come back here and he said that he would be interested. So we don't have any plans. That's a lot of training. That's a long race. The training for the Ironman and the short distance in the Paralympics are not necessarily comparable.

So working out the timing would have to be something that we thought a lot about. But, yes, I'm very interested. Again, you know me well enough now to know that I like challenges.

"That's the meaning of life that finish line"

OL: Where do you get the energy from?!

BS: I think you know that there's something about the meaning of life nested in that loop. This I, I don't think I can do this thing, I train really hard and I do that thing, the amount of happiness and gratitude and joy that you feel when you do something you didn't think you were capable of.

To me, that's the meaning of life that finish line, the feeling of the finish line yesterday. It's the most rewarding thing that there is in life other than love, like love we have with our families and things like that.

You know, when you're about to start the race, you're afraid it's going to happen. Is it going to be something bad going to happen? Am I going to blow up or am I going to get beat or am I going to fall off the bike and to, like, look fear in the face and say, I'm going to beat you, beat him, beat fear, then that's like that's the best.

There's nothing better than that. And I'm only thirty-seven. Like, why not keep doing that.

How did Brad Snyder lose his vision?

Snyder lost his sight when an IED went off while he was on tour with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan in 2011.

OL: Your life was changed in Afghanistan. How much do you reflect on your time there and your journey since that moment?

BS: I reflect on it all the time, but the the preeminent feeling of that experience has little to do with Afghanistan and more has to do with life and death.

Immediately following the blast on September 7th, 2011, I thought that I had died. And I know there are a lot of para athletes who have similar near-death experiences who reflect on it and say, you know, every day I wake up is a special day. It's a day that I didn't think I would have. And every moment is a special moment.

And I have a fire inside that tells me I need to make the most of every moment because it's a moment I might not have had. And I like to talk about that because, you know, you don't have to be like me and get blown up and lose your vision to be grateful for today.

Today is a really special day and every meal that you get, every hug that you get to give to your family or every finish line you get to cross is a really special thing. It doesn't have to be the Paralympics. It could be a finish line anywhere.

But just being grateful for what you have is a really great way to really enjoy life to the fullest. And I think I'm glad that I've had the experiences that I've had to kind of push me to that boundary and allow me to understand that every day is special. And I really feel like I want to make the most of every moment.

That's what I take out of what I experienced in Afghanistan.

Brad Snyder's wife Sara: "She's with me every day"

Snyder married his wife Sara in November 2019.

BS: Every day she's with me. When we first started dating, I told her I'm a triathlete you know, lots of training every day, one hour, two hours. I swim a lot. And she said, OK, I'll do that with you. And I said, no, but you're not a triathlete. She says, I don't care.

She had no background in swimming or triathlon or anything, but she trains with me every day. If I'm on the treadmill running, she's on the bike trainer. If I'm on the bike, she's on the treadmill, we go swim together. She's got really fast. She's really a fast runner now on the treadmill and she's gotten really good at swimming.

But she does it because she knows that it's important to me. And having her there to push me every day has been really remarkable. And she doesn't just push me in the workouts. She pushes me when life gets hard.

She's been supportive in so many different dimensions and honestly, the only drawback to this whole experience here in Tokyo is that she's not here.

When we got the news that no spectators would come we were really sad but she took it like a champ and she said no, you must go and you'll succeed in our mission. Our mission is for you to succeed in Tokyo.

She was over the moon, thrilled to watch the race yesterday and I talked to her afterward, we're both really ecstatic, and she was the first one to say, all right, let's get training for the next one!

When I came here she gave me a card that has an audio message and she always says this before my race. She says, 'don't come home unless you get a medal.' She's joking, but she always pushes me hard. When I called her on the phone, I said, hello, can I come home now? And she said, yes!

Now that the race is over I can't wait to get home to my wife.

The next big challenge for Brad Snyder? Starting a family

BS: I'm looking forward to having a family with my wife. We've been married about two years and I think I'm looking forward to that, we have a beautiful home and we have our dog now.

One day when I have kids, like I look at Melissa Stockwell and the way that her kids have grown and watch her compete, I think it's so cool, I think her kids must look at her like such a superhero because their mom does Paralympics, a Paralympic triathlon. That's what I want.

I want one day for my little guy to watch me on TV and get really excited and have dreams of his own or her own. To go on to do their own thing and be the best version of themselves. So for me, the challenge is to keep this up and let our family grow and hopefully inspire my kids to be the best for themselves.