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Paratriathlon Debut In Tokyo Exceeds All Expectations For Brad Snyder

by Marc Lancaster

Brad Snyder and guide Greg Billington celebrate after winning gold in the men's PTVI paratriathlon event at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 28, 2021 in Tokyo.


Paralympic success is nothing new to Brad Snyder, but there was so much wrapped up in the road to his paratriathlon gold medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 that he is still sorting through all those “layers of weirdness” nearly three weeks later. 
The first layer was the sport itself. Snyder won seven medals, five of them gold, in the swimming competitions at the Olympic Games London 2012 and Olympic Games Rio 2016. He made the transition to paratriathlon beginning in 2018 but as recently as this spring he had doubts about whether he would even be able to make the U.S. team for Tokyo. 
Then there were the various complications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, from the exhausting protocols to navigate upon arrival in Japan to the strangeness of competing in mostly empty venues — a prospect he couldn’t wrap his mind around when he first began considering it in that uncertain spring of 2020.
“That just was like a mental backflip,” Snyder said. “How do you have sports without spectators? I remember that feeling, like, you’re going to have the U.S. Open with no spectators, the Olympics with no spectators, you’re going to have the Paralympics with no spectators? How do you even do that?”
So, no, the Tokyo experience was not what he nor anyone else had envisioned when they first began dreaming of the Games years ago, but something clicked for Snyder after he ran the gauntlet at Haneda Airport and got settled in at the Paralympic Village. 
“All of a sudden you're just right back in the thick of sports,” he said. “And one of the shocking things was, it felt normal really quickly, which felt abnormal.”
As fluid a concept as “normal” is these days, competition remains a comfort zone for the 37-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, who lost his eyesight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan in September 2011. And after all of his memorable Paralympic moments in an individual sport, something about competing as a team took this particular experience to another level. 
Snyder and his guide, 2016 triathlon Olympian Greg Billington, had a straightforward plan heading into the race at Odaiba Marine Park. Considering Snyder’s strength in the water, they wanted to open as wide a lead as possible in the opening 750-meter swim, then do everything they could to hold on. 
Sure enough, Snyder and Billington came out of the swim with a 1:14 lead on Japan’s Satoru Yoneoka and guide Kohei Tsubaki, but they would find a way to increase their advantage on the field on the 20-kilometer bike leg. By the end of that ride, their closest pursuers were USA teammates Kyle Coon and guide Andy Potts, who were 1:47 back after the second transition. 
Snyder kept waiting for the lead to shrink, but when he came around after the first of four running laps on the 1.25-kilometer circuit and heard from Team USA’s coaches that they were about 1:45 ahead, the situation crystallized immediately in his mind. 
“I thought, wow, I’m in this thing right now and gold is a very realistic possibility,” Snyder said. “My destiny is in my hands, we can do this. We came around on lap two, and the gap, if it changed at all, it didn't change by much. That's when I knew gold is not only possible, it's probable. So my mindset went from, ‘I have to achieve big things’ into ‘don’t screw this up.’”

Brad Snyder and guide Greg Billington celebrate after winning gold in the men's PTVI paratriathlon event at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 28, 2021 in Tokyo.


They didn’t. When they made the turn onto the carpet of the finishing chute holding a lead of about a minute over Spain’s Héctor Catalá Laparra and guide Gustavo Rodriguez Iglesias, Snyder thought, “It’s mine.” 
Snyder had never won a race in his new discipline before the Americas Triathlon Para Championships in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, on June 27, and as he came down the home stretch in Tokyo he remembered a discussion at the Village led by the legendary Ironman triathlete Potts about how to grab the tape at the finish line. 
“That all popped in my head,” Snyder said. “We grabbed the tape and it was just so surreal to be the one grabbing the tape. … That finish line — I've never felt that much joy in one moment after a race before.”
He attributed that to the “new paradigm” of winning and standing atop the podium beside Billington. 
“I'm not swimming for myself anymore, I'm not swimming by myself,” he said. “I did the whole race with Greg, I did almost all of my training with my wife. To be up there with someone else was really emblematic of how my sports career now is more team-based than it ever has been before. The refrain from USA Triathlon this whole time was “team united,” and really, being up there with Greg was the perfect embodiment of that concept.”
It extended beyond Snyder’s own race experience. He said cheering on teammate Kendall Gretsch as she roared from behind to win gold by one second in the PTWC classification was one of his favorite sports moments of all time. It was that aspect of this new paradigm, as much as anything else, that had Snyder thinking about future competitions within an hour or so of crossing the finish line. 
He doesn’t have specific plans at the moment, mostly because he hasn’t had time. Two days after returning from Tokyo, Snyder was at work in the Ph.D. program at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. He hopes to take that degree and his research in the relationship between the military and society and return to the Naval Academy to teach leadership and ethics. 
With that challenge on the horizon, Snyder had entered this summer believing Tokyo probably would be his last high-level competition. Now, however, he is thinking not only about Paris in 2024 but Los Angeles four years after that — perhaps with a few Ironman events mixed in.
“I don't want to get too far ahead of myself,” he said. “I want to just make sure that I'm continuing to enjoy racing and doing it for the right reasons. … 
“It's like the Brett Favre thing: I really should retire but I feel like I just can't stop. I want to keep going. I know a lot of people say you should try to go out when you're on top, so this would be a good time to do it. But I don't care. I want to keep doing it.”

Marc Lancaster is a writer and editor based in Charlotte. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.