LONDON, England (AFP) — Blinded US swim star Bradley Snyder on Wednesday described his journey from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the Paralympics, thankful that he escaped with his life to swim for his country.
The former US Navy lieutenant, who has won a gold and silver medal at the Games in the freestyle S11 category for blind and visually impaired swimmers, said sport had helped him to "get back into the fight" following his injury.
"I'm not buried in (the US military cemetery at) Arlington (Virginia), I'm here in London competing," the 28-year-old said. "I'm still here. I have a lot of friends who didn't make it back."
Exactly a year ago on Thursday, Snyder was a world away from the Aquatics Centre in east London, serving as a bomb disposal specialist with the elite US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan when a home-made bomb exploded in his face.
Twelve months on, he will line up at the 17,500-capacity pool to win a place in the S11 100m butterfly final.
But while another gold will be his priority, memories of the day he was blinded will not be far from his mind.
"I remember the sound of the blast. I could see out of my left eye originally and I looked down and saw I had both my legs, both my arms," he told a news conference at Olympic Park.
"And while I was in shock — I was pretty scared — there was a whole bunch of optimism when I looked down and saw that I was largely OK."
But he admitted that there were many difficult moments in the months that followed.
"The toughest days were once I was weaned off everything and once I was active and I started to become aware of my lack of capability," he said. "Not being able to get myself around was a real tough blow."
One of the most difficult things is that every night, he still dreams that he can see.
"I'll wake up to the dark," he said. "I've reconciled it and I've got past it. But there are some tough mornings."
Snyder said he has friends and family to thank for the fact that he has managed to rehabilitate himself physically "rather quickly" as well as make a return to swimming after previously representing the US Navy Academy swim team.
He is one of a number of former servicemen and women from the United States and Britain to compete in the Paralympics this year, a legacy of nearly a decade of bloody conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In June, Snyder won all five events at the US Paralympic swimming trials and set a new world best for visually impaired athletes in the 100m and 400m freestyle, prompting high praise from US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.
"Swimming has become a way that I can garner the relevance and success I used to gain from my service," he said.
Snyder, who is now working as an intern for a small software company while he awaits his discharge from the Navy, will also go in the S11 400m freestyle tomorrow.