Mary Omatiga

Olympic sprinter Aleia Hobbs’ life changed in the NICU


So far in 2023, Aleia Hobbs became the second-fastest 60m sprinter in history and has gone undefeated in indoor and outdoor track races, becoming one of the women to watch ahead of August’s world championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Hobbs, an Olympic 4x100m relay silver medalist in Tokyo, discussed her goals for Paris, the U.S. women’s 100m picture and her deep Louisiana roots. The New Orleans native and former LSU standout also details the phone call that changed her life and her experience being a new mom after adopting son Amir last June,

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Olympic Talk: How did you get your start in track and field?

Aleia Hobbs: It all started with me running from a dog. I was getting out of a church van, and someone said there was a dog. Everyone else got back in the van, and I took off running. I don’t even remember what kind of dog it was. I just saw that it had four legs, and I didn’t like it, so I took off running. After that, everyone was coming up to me and telling me I was fast. I was a kid, so I didn’t think much of it. A couple of days later, one of the booster moms came to my house and asked me if I wanted to run track.

My very first race, I was just gone. Every race after that I was just running, beating everybody. I’ve been running ever since then.

Do you remember when you first fell in love with the sport?

Hobbs: The first time I got on the track. I did AAU track when I was 9. I remember winning all of the Junior Olympic races and having all of these records at 11 and 12. I do have a different style. I had a big mohawk, an afro and braids when I was younger, and people would always remember me. At meets, people of all ages — kids and adults — would come up to me and ask for pictures and autographs, and that made a big difference.

You turned pro in 2018. Did you ever imagine as a kid that this would be your life? When did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you?

Hobbs: No. I didn’t think that at first. I was just running to run. High school is when it really hit. I started knowing what things were and realizing how fast I actually was. I didn’t have a plan to go pro or anything at that time. My goal was to get to college. I got that done, and it was when I was in college that I realized I could go pro.

My freshman year of college, I ran 11.13 (seconds for the 100m, ranking third in the world among U20 women). I was seeing pros around me because we had a pro group at LSU, but it didn’t really hit me until I ran 10.85 my junior year (ranking fifth in the world among all ages). I had (microfracture) knee surgery after my freshman year. My sophomore year I didn’t run that fast at all, so I wasn’t really thinking about that. It was after that 10.85 that I knew if I really locked in and did what I needed to do, it could happen. Going into my senior year, I had a whole different mindset. I knew how the game went and how important consistency was. I didn’t lose a 100m race at all my senior year.

Fast forward to the the Tokyo Olympic Trials. What exactly happened with the the false start in the semifinals? Before you even walked off the track, the tears were flowing.

Hobbs: I was having a great season that year. I was consistently running 10.9, so I knew going into that race I was ready. It was my first Olympic Trials because I’d had knee surgery. I felt like everything I did that year — the consistent times — went down the drain. That was my very first thought, and once I had that thought, that’s when the tears came.

You were able to run the final under protest. How many minutes before the race did you find out? What do you remember thinking before and after the race?

Hobbs: I sat there and cried for I don’t know how long, then I finally went to the back and got my stuff. I sat there and cried for 10 minutes, then one of my teammates came and got me. I found my coach and agent, and they were telling me to keep on warming up because they were going to protest. I was trying to stay warm and jog, but I was crying hard. I felt like I could barely move my body.

Mentally I was trying to stay in it because I knew there was a possibility (that I could run), but it was hard because I knew what happened. All the tears were draining my body. I kept asking my coach and agent if they heard anything, and they said no. The final was about to start, and they told me to just come to the call room, where I was just sitting and waiting. The officials walked all of the other athletes out to the track, and at that point I started crying again because I was thinking, if they still haven’t called my name, I’m not running.

I’m sitting in the call room by myself, and then about two to three minutes after the officials went to the track, they told me I could run. I jumped up, put my shoes on and ran onto the track. I didn’t have a bib because after I got disqualified I ripped it off. They ended up finding me one and using a paper holder to pin it on me.

At this point, everyone is standing in the blocks ready to run. My nerves were getting bad, and I was trying to calm down and get into that racing mindset. When I ran onto the track, everybody started cheering, but it was hard. I finished seventh. I was so upset, but I was happy that I was able to actually run despite all of that. I knew I didn’t run what I could have ran.

Editor’s Note: The top six in the 100m usually make the Olympic team for the 4x100m relay pool. Hobbs was upgraded to sixth after original winner Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified after testing positive for marijuana. Hobbs got on the Olympic team for the relay.

Walk me through your experience in Tokyo.

Hobbs: When I got the Team USA kit, I was like, “Wow, I’m really on the team!” It was different because of COVID. Everybody that had been to an Olympics before told me that it wasn’t the full experience.

The Olympic Games-Tokyo 2020

How special was that 4x100m silver medal?

Hobbs: When we stepped on the track, I was just looking around. There was no one in the crowd, but I was like, wow, this is literally the biggest race of my life. To be a part of that and contribute to the team was a blessing. It was great to get that round done and let them finish it in the final.

(Editor’s Note: Hobbs ran in the preliminary heats, then was replaced for the Olympic final by one of the higher-finishing sprinters from trials.)

What would having the opportunity to represent the U.S. at your second Olympic Games mean to you, and what will be different?

Hobbs: Paris will be different because it won’t be a COVID year, and I will be prepared. I was prepared (in Tokyo), but how it happened was just different. This time, we’re going to get some things done in the 100m (individually) and for the relay, too.

Can you talk about what it’s like being a Black woman on the world stage?

Hobbs: I love that fact I get to represent. I get a lot of hateful comments and messages from people calling me transgender, and that bothers me a lot. Especially since now I’m running faster. A lot of people are seeing me for the first time and are saying, “That’s a man. That’s not a Black woman.” Mentally that messes with me, but I try to put that to the side. I’m going to still do what I do and hold it down for the Black women.

Recommended Reading: Hobbs recently spoke with on her experience with social media abuse and body-shaming. Click here for more, and for more on how transphobia can disproportionately impact athletes of color of all gender identities, visit GLAAD and Athlete Ally.

Thank you for sharing that. Switching gears, tell me about your time at LSU. 

Hobbs: It’s home. It’s family. I knew I wanted to go to LSU literally all my life. I didn’t even go on an official visit. We have our state meets at LSU every year, so after one of those meets I stayed on Saturday night, did a visit on Sunday and that was it. That was all I needed. I had a good freshman year. I made nationals (and finished sixth in the NCAA 100m). I had knee surgery after. My junior year, I ran a PR of 10.85. Senior year, I won NCAAs in the 60m, 100m and 4x100m relay. I went to USAs and won, then I had knee surgery again.

2018 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Outdoor Track & Field Championship

How hard was it to recover from those knee surgeries mentally and physically?

Hobbs: It was really, really hard. The first one — my left one — it was bothering me for years. After my junior year, it stopped, but then it started hurting again. When we finally got it pain-free, the right one started bothering me. I think it was at my first Diamond League pro race when I first started feeling the pain. I had to get another (microfracture) knee surgery for the same exact thing.

It was very hard to deal with mentally, but I always tell myself to never lose faith. You’re going to run into road bumps, but how are you going to get around it? I’ve dealt with adversity since I was young, so that’s made me stronger. After my first knee surgery, there were times I thought I would never run fast ever again, but I didn’t let that stop me.

Going back to Louisiana, you’ve lived there for most of your life. How special is that place to you?

Hobbs: Not too many people come out of there, sports-wise. There’s so much adversity. The fact that I was able to do it is good because I know a lot of little kids are looking up to me. Just the fact that I could actually show them it’s possible.

You were 9 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit. How were you and your family impacted?

Hobbs: My family and I had to pack up our stuff and get on a bus that drove us to a shelter in Mississippi. I remember feeling scared and confused. That was the first big hurricane that I experienced where we had to actually leave. The shelter was packed with people. We slept on cots with not a lot of space separating us from other families. It was bad. There were fights. … Our house didn’t get messed up too bad, but when we finally got home, our house didn’t have electricity for a couple of days. I lived on west bank. so we didn’t get as much damage as everyone else did.

You became a mom last summer. Tell me about the phone call that changed your life.

Hobbs: My son was born June 15th, 2022, so the call came on June 16th. Someone that my girlfriend’s mom knew had a baby. She couldn’t take care of him, so she had him and left him in the hospital. His name was “Baby Boy.” (My girlfriend’s mom) said, “He’s in the hospital by himself. Do you guys want him?” We decided to talk about it and see, but it was an instant yes. He was in there by himself — a newborn baby that came two months early — so he was in the NICU. We were all for it. We would go to the hospital every day and go see him. They had COVID protocols, so at times it was hard to get in and out, but shortly after that phone call we were getting the ball rolling to get him into our custody. We had to be foster parents first, and then it was the adoption process.

Were you and your partner actively looking to adopt at that time?

Hobbs: We did plan on it, but we didn’t think it was going to happen the way it did. I like that it happened this way because we got the blessing just in a different form.

Can you describe what it was like meeting Amir for the first time?

Hobbs: Awww, he was so small, oh my goodness. He was in the (NICU incubator). They had sent us pictures before, but actually getting to see him, I remember thinking, “Wow, you’re my son? You’re actually my son.” The first time I held him I was scared. He had these wires on him still, so I didn’t want to accidently pull a wire, but I just held him and sat completely still. I held him for at least an hour, not moving at all, just holding him and looking at him. I felt instant unconditional love.

What has Amir taught you, and what lessons do you hope to teach him?

Hobbs: Patience. He’s taught me a lot of patience. He’s taught me about strength. There were days where I’d be tired. He was sick, too, for a while. For at least a month, he had RSV and was feeling horrible. That’s my child, so I did everything I had to do to take care him.

What do you wish people knew about the foster care and adoption process?

Hobbs: It’s actually a process, but it’s definitely worth it. I didn’t even know, but there’s so many kids who actually need homes. I’m all for it. I’m probably going to adopt more, honestly.

How many kids do you want?

Hobbs: That’s a good question. I kind of want a lot. Maybe about four.

You have a close relationship with former LSU teammate Mikiah Brisco. Can you tell me about that?

Hobbs: Mikiah and I have been running with and against each other since we were maybe 12 or 13 years old. We’re both from Louisiana. If she has a bad race, I’m there for her. If I have a bad race, she’s there for me. We were able to fix each other’s weaknesses.

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Tatyana McFadden shares journey behind Tatyana’s Law, goals for 2024 Paris Games

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 9
All images via Getty

Tatyana McFadden, a 20-time Paralympic medalist, has used her platform to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. McFadden, 34, recently discussed her struggles as a high school student athlete, what compelled her to help establish Tatyana’s Law and her goals for the 2024 Paris Games.

Thursday marks the 12th celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an event that works to bring change for digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: How important is Global Accessibility Awareness Day to you, and what does accessibility and representation mean to you?

Tatyana McFadden: I live it every single day. It shouldn’t be just a one-day thing. We should celebrate accessibility and global awareness every single day. As soon as I leave my house, I have to learn how to adapt right away.

Whether it’s going into a store or restaurant or hotel or into a cab or traveling on the airplane and getting off the airplane — a majority of people don’t think about how people with disabilities do those things. As an elite athlete, I think it’s so important to use my voice and to share the experiences that I have gone through and how we can make this world a better place. I’m speaking on behalf of those who don’t have a platform or for those who are unable to speak up. Especially if we’re going to be hosting the Games in LA in 2028. It’s good to get a start on it.

Do you remember the day you received your first wheelchair?

McFadden: I received my very first wheelchair when I first came over to the U.S. I was adopted at age 6 from Russia. It was a little red wheelchair that was waiting for me in the United States at my new home. It was like freedom for me. I got in it, and I was pushing up and down the street so fast, doing wheelies.

I spent my first six years in a Russian orphanage, and I didn’t have any medical treatment, so I was walking on my arms and my hands and spinning just inches above the floor. I didn’t have a wheelchair.

What is the process of getting a wheelchair like today? What is the cost and maintenance?

McFadden: Getting a wheelchair is really hard in the United States. I’m actually still currently waiting for my new one. It’s going to take almost a year to get it, and it shouldn’t be like that for people with disabilities. We should be able to have access to wheelchairs very quickly, much more quickly than we can get access to guns, right? This is my mobility, and it’s my legs. I have to use it every single day. Otherwise, I can’t do my job, and other people can’t do theirs, either, if they don’t have access.

The cost is pretty expensive, and I’m really fortunate to have really good healthcare under the USOPC. A manual chair like mine would probably cost around $10,000 for everything. It’s very tough if you don’t have insurance, and if you have a person with a disability that needs an electric wheelchair, or any more assistance on that wheelchair, the cost would be a lot more. I hope we can get the cost down eventually, but with the cost it’s very hard to get an accessible wheelchair. So we don’t get a new wheelchair every year. You normally have to wait four to six years to get a new one or to qualify for the insurance.

I want to talk about “Tatyana’s Law,” federal legislation ensuring equal access to school activities for students with disabilities. A lot of people don’t know your journey leading up to it. The booing you experienced on the track. Can you talk about some of the difficulties you faced as a high school athlete?

McFadden: Having my lawsuit be in high school was very, very hard. I mean, I came off such a high competing in Athens in 2004 for my very first Games (at age 15). I came home with a silver and bronze medal, and all I wanted to do was be on that high school track team. Being denied as the only female wheelchair racer was very difficult. I was denied a uniform, access and the right to race alongside others at the high school track meets. I even had to take a separate bus, which I absolutely hated. I normally was the only one on the bus. Sometimes friends rode with me.

High school is hard enough anyway. You’re going through a lot of transitions. Emotionally, it was very difficult, especially going into every single track meet and having parents and athletes boo at you, having your former teammates write letters to the Baltimore Sun, saying, “Well, there’s sports for her own kind. Why does she need to be participate in high school sports?”

I thought to myself, I’m an elite athlete already. I came home with a silver and bronze medal from the Athens Games, I can use my voice. I have a younger sister, Hannah, who is also a wheelchair racer, and I knew that she wanted to participate in in high school track someday. At that point, we were teaching discrimination right there in Maryland in Howard County, that it was OK to segregate people with disabilities.

Think about for your future employers. They were being taught that it’s OK, we don’t have to include that person because they’re different than us. We have to remember that people with disabilities are part of every culture, every subculture, and so we were teaching really, really bad things during that time. That’s why I wanted to go through with the lawsuit. I was going through it for the right cause, to help others so the people who came after me have the right to play any sport that they want. And this school has to allow that. We’re not talking about the Olympics or the Paralympics here. We’re just talking high school sports. Having that inclusion is very important. I felt like it set up a very beautiful foundation for my career and my purpose and my why in sports.

Your mom, Deborah, is a trailblazer herself, helping to write the Americans with Disabilities Act. What does she mean to you, and what lessons have you learned from her?

McFadden: My mom is my rock. Everything that I go through in sports and especially what I went through in high school, she knew the steps. She knew that a phone call to the school wasn’t going to be enough. She knew that this was going to be very tough on me. She knew that there was going to be a lot of negative noise around it, especially with what my mom went through with her paralysis.

She was disabled in college from the waist up, so she couldn’t write exams. The University of Maryland almost didn’t let her graduate because she couldn’t write the exam. She had to do it orally and verbalize her answers. That wasn’t the rule, so she had to fight for the right to take her exam and graduate.

My mom is the perfect example with everything that she went through. She understood perfectly what I was going through. Even in my career, when I’m fighting for equal rights in the Paralympic world, or in the marathon circuit, or just for people with disabilities in our own communities. It’s really nice to be able to talk to her about it and say, “Well, what can we do? What are the next steps?”

Paris 2024 would be your seventh Paralympic Games. What are you most excited for, and how do you think the Games will be different this time around?

McFadden: I am two medals away from beating my idol Chantal Petitclerc, who is a Canadian Paralympic wheelchair racer. She’s won 21 Paralympic medals. It’s taken me 20 years to chase her career and amazing record.

What do you think sets the Paralympics and Paralympic Movement apart from any other sporting event?

McFadden: When you watch the Paralympics, you’re going to be in awe. When you watch wheelchair racing, its almost like NASCAR. There’s so much technicality behind it and a little bit of science behind it.

The majority of the public can’t do what we do, so I think that’s even cooler. When I talk about wheelchair racing, I say, pretend you’re running with an 18- to 20-pound weight belt around you and go for a run. Try to do the 100m. Try to do a marathon and feel like what it’s like wearing that. You’ll be even more impressed that we do it with a much smaller group of muscles.

Rio Paralympics - Day 8
Getty Images

Do you think the Paralympic Movement represents its athletes well? Is it inclusive enough? If not, what changes do you think need to be made?

McFadden: I think that we are moving. I remember when I started at the Paralympic Games in 2004, we were still a separate organization from the Olympics in the U.S. The name wasn’t combined to make the USOPC. When I finished competing at the Athens Games and came back home, it wasn’t celebrated. No one even knew that I left for the Paralympics. So I thought, wow, maybe the Paralympics isn’t important. Maybe it’s not elite or prestigious like the Olympics are. I had to do that research and figure out what parallel are we missing here in the United States?

One, it’s understanding disability. Second, it’s understanding the Paralympics and how it’s parallel to the Olympics. I think most people miss that. I also think it’s showing and educating.

I think when we give people the chance to see the Paralympics, they’ll want to learn more about the athletes. You don’t know who else is watching, so if that youth has a disability, but they never knew about Paralympic sport, or they never knew they could get involved, it creates that educational piece for them as well.

Do you have a medal or Paralympic memory that means the most to you?

McFadden: Winning my first gold in 2012 was pretty special because in Athens I didn’t do it, and in Beijing I wasn’t able to. I was a silver and bronze girl, so winning my first gold, in my first event the 400m, was pretty special. Also in Rio, when we got the “McSweep” in the 1500m and the 5000m with my teammates Amanda McGrory and Chelsea McClammer.

You’ve said, “Life isn’t about what you don’t have. It’s about what you do with the gifts you’re given.” You’ve already made such an incredible impact. What else do you want to do?

McFadden: I want to continue to increase that impact. I feel like now we’ve woken up the world a little bit. We have more impact to go and more of a difference to make. My goal is to go down the street here in New York City and for someone to go, “Wow, are you Paralympic athlete?” just like they do in Europe where they love Paralympians.

How has the University of Illinois impacted your training? What is the program like for Paralympic athletes?

McFadden: I was very fortunate to be part of the University of Illinois. Going there for undergrad and my grad school program set up my career absolutely amazing and beautifully. Being able to train with 20 other athletes and having that advice right there, especially coming in as a freshman and looking at your elders. That sense of community is really important. There’s no other program like that besides Switzerland.

Oftentimes, people with disabilities don’t have equal access to an education or the accessibility to that education. The school is accessible — dormitories, your classes, getting on the buses. It was something I didn’t have to worry about while getting my degree.

I now have switched gears, and I have my own private coach. I’m looking forward to that journey as well. I still have a great relationship with Adam Bleakney and the University of Illinois.

Is there anything else you want people to know about accessibility or the Paralympic movement? 

McFadden: I’m glad that we’re having open discussions. I think the more open discussions that we have, and the more vulnerable that we can be, the more we can help our own communities and help people with disabilities. Whether it’s from the youth all the way to adulthood, making sure they know about and have access to these resources. They can go to the and research youth groups that are in their own area. They can find grants that they can apply for, for a wheelchair and sporting equipment.

Paralympic star Brad Snyder talks accessibility, identity, thoughts on Paris 2024


Thursday marks the 12th Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a catalyst in the conversation for digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities. Brad Snyder, an eight-time Paralympic medalist between swimming and triathlon and former U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer, who lost vision in both eyes while deployed in Afghanistan, discusses his experiences with accessibility, the everyday challenges of vision loss, how his sense of identity evolved, why the Paralympic Movement is so special and whether he will bid for a fourth Paralympics in 2024.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: How important is Global Accessibility Awareness Day to you, and what does accessibility and representation mean to you?

Snyder: Global Accessibility Day is really critically important for me. It’s something that I wasn’t fully aware of and didn’t fully appreciate, especially when I was first blind. But over the last 10 years I have a growing appreciation and passion for trying to make sure that people are aware of the constraints and difficulties that those with disabilities face and how the able-bodied community can break down barriers. Accessibility to me is breaking down those institutionalized barriers to those with disabilities to allow them to integrate and be included in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Whether that’s something silly like watching TV or being integrated into the workplace or participating in sport. For me, there’s a lot of invisible boundaries that exist. Something as simple as filling out a form online can be a 10-second issue or a 45-minute thing if the website is not accessible and I need to go find help. It can be really disappointing and frustrating and a constant reminder of my disability.

I know the same is true for other people on different parts of the spectrum of disability. If you’re a wheelchair user or have other mobility issues — things like high curbs or no elevator can be prohibitively difficult and can exist as obstacles for you to be fully integrated into your community. It’s just not fair to have that obstacle before you because our society is built for able-bodied folks. The more people are aware of the gamut of disability, it can really increase our quality of life and increase the level of inclusion for those with disabilities, which I firmly believe increases the happiness and fulfillment of our overall society.

You made the courageous and selfless decision to serve your country, where you sustained a complete loss of vision in both eyes in 2011. You’ve talked in the past about struggling with your identity in the immediate aftermath. Can you talk about what that was like and some of the everyday challenges you’ve faced?

Snyder: I think a lot of people look at incurring a disability like that in life and think it’s all about figuring out how to work with blindness. How do you order stuff off Amazon? How do you watch TV? How do you figure out what shirt to wear? My experience with that was the easy stuff. Figuring out how to use a cane and get around with a guide dog or how to put on the audio description on the TV, that stuff comes relatively quickly. What’s really difficult is figuring out who you are and what value you bring to society.

Making the choice to serve, that’s a reflection of who I am and who I’ve always been. The value I see in myself is my ability to contribute, help and serve in some capacity. The challenge in losing my vision had everything to do with what value am I going to bring. What work can I do? What service can I offer? How can I positively impact society when I can’t even find the food on my plate? I think the tactics of blindness were important and really integral in me figuring out who I would be. But the harder things were how do I establish a sense of confidence? How do I find a way to serve? How do I have a voice?

That’s where sports became really important for me. Being able to get back in the pool and start to race again was a way for me to see my value. Especially being able to succeed in the Paralympic Movement. I can see I have a platform. I have the ability to inspire people. I have the ability to communicate to people about how to navigate adversity and how to be a role model. That’s where I started to see, understand and accept where my value was. This is how I can serve. I can serve as a Paralympian, and I think that’s been a really great second career for me.

Are there any challenges with getting prosthetic eyes in terms of accessibility?

Snyder: I think yes. I’ve been really lucky from that standpoint. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) has done a really good job of alleviating that issue for me. I’ve been able to get multiple sets of eyes through the VA.

As a quick aside, last year on our vacation at the Jersey Shore, I made the silly decision to go and body surf, which was a lot of fun until I lost an eye. I had to go back to the VA and say I need a new set of eyes. It was a very quick and painless process for me to get that.

With that said, I’m acutely aware that my veteran status has given me that benefit that’s not enjoyed by all. Actually getting prosthetics, whether it’s eyes or legs or arms, for the community that’s not affiliated with the military or being a veteran, it’s extremely difficult and can be arduous. Insurance exists as an obstacle in that regard. Accessibility in that space is definitely an issue across the gamut of disability.

Do you feel like there are enough resources and that there is enough representation for people with vision loss specifically, and if not, what do you think should be different?

Snyder: The answer is unequivocally no. I recognize the challenge in that we’re a very small minority of the overall population. It’s very rare that someone knows or has a personal relationship with someone that is blind, and I think it does take a personal relationship to understand and empathize with their struggle. That’s one component of it, but I think you mentioned a really important word — representation.

Making sure that wherever possible, disability is a consideration at the leadership level of every organization. Whether it’s a public entity in the government space, a non-profit or a corporation, board representation, or having a chief people officer who’s knowledgeable in the full gamut of [disability]. It’s really important to make sure that there’s at least a voice for the visually impaired and all those with disabilities wherever possible. Making those small accommodations, like an accessible website, can dramatically improve the quality of life and inclusivity for those like myself, who have a visual impairment or other disability.

Earlier on, you talked about how much being able to serve was deeply rooted in your identity. You’re a three-time Paralympian and an eight-time Paralympic medalist — a true patriot who represents the U.S. so well. How much pride do you have in getting to represent your country and how would you sum up your Paralympic experiences in one word and why?

Snyder: The one word I’ll use is honor. It’s an honor to compete. I recognize that I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to express my virtue in that space. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to compete in the Paralympics and represent the best virtues of our country, and to bring that back and try to inspire that in other people. It’s an honor to be able to represent what society wants to see in itself. People watch the Paralympics, and they’re prideful of our flag and our athletes, because we all believe that the athletes represent the best versions of ourselves.

I have immense pride. I was steeped in the idea of service from a very early age. Three out of four of my grandparents all served in the Navy actually in and around World War II. I grew up looking at pictures of them in their uniforms on the wall and hearing the stories of World War II, the fight against fascism and knowing and understanding that my grandparents had all been a component of that big narrative. It gave me the sense that the best and most noble sort of pursuit for me would be to follow in their footsteps and serve in the military and serve in the Navy specifically. For me, that was always just a part of where I was going. Like I talked about earlier, that did set me up for some sort of challenge when I had to give that up. But to be able to return to that same feeling of representing my country and those ideals, I have an immense amount of pride for that.

While I have pride for myself and in my guide, Greg Billington, when we get to win, I have more pride when I get to come back and share that story with others. We call it the flame to flame. I can show a kid my medal and I know, especially with kids, they’re not celebrating me. They’re thinking, “I can do that, too.” That’s what I have the most pride in. Bringing it back and sowing that dream for future generations.

It actually comes back to the beginning of the conversation about accessibility. It’s one thing to sow that dream for an Olympian who has access to the local swim team, the local pool, and they can see Michael Phelps and say I’m going to do what Michael Phelps did. It’s a whole other thing for a person with a disability, especially a young person with a disability, because that pathway is not clear for them. The more that we can put the Paralympics out into that space, the more we can feature accessibility. The more we can make those small accommodations, the more that young person is to see their pathway to the podium.

What sets the Paralympic Games and Paralympic Movement apart from any other other sporting event, and why should people tune in?

Snyder: The Paralympics has all the stuff that we love about sports. It has the intensity. It has the drama. It has the excellence. It has the speed. Whether it’s World Cup or the NFL or the NBA, it has the same kind of dynamic. But what it also has is major adversity. The ability for someone to accept and move forward after losing a limb to cancer or (facing explosives) in Afghanistan or being paralyzed by a traumatic accident when they were younger. While Paralympians don’t want to be defined by those narratives, they exist as a defining characteristic of the movement, and to me it only heightens all the stuff that we love about sport — the drama, the intensity the competition, and oh, by the way, each of these athletes has been dealt a very difficult hand.

They don’t have the same accessibility. They don’t have the same opportunities. They don’t have the same pathway, but yet they’ve succeeded anyway. To me, that’s what makes the Paralympics so magical. It’s why I’m so prideful to be a Paralympian. Now, I love that in the U.S., the Olympic and Paralympic Committee is the same committee. We stand side by side with our Olympic counterparts. There’s immense power to both movements. But I do think that there’s important distinguishing factors, and to me, I think the narratives of adversity are an integral component to the Paralympic Movement.

You became the first American male Paralympian to win a triathlon at the Tokyo Games (after it debuted in 2016). What does that accomplishment mean to you?

Snyder: It means that we have a lot of room for improvement. I like that I was first, and I’m honored, but I think that now it sets the bar high for our program. I’ve long believed that the best Paralympic athletes in the U.S. don’t yet know about the Paralympics, or they don’t know that exists as an opportunity for them, or there is some significant barrier preventing them from being able to compete, whether that’s access to the right technology and equipment that might give them an opportunity. If I could do it, I bet you there’s someone else way better than me who’s out there in our community right now who just needs to be presented that opportunity.

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 4
All images via Getty.

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 4

I know you’re focusing on writing your dissertation and fatherhood, but what are your thoughts on Paris 2024?

Snyder: I don’t know that I’ve fully made that decision (on whether to bid for the Paris Games). I’m of two minds, and I’m of two hearts, and it’s really difficult to navigate this situation. I know there’s a lot of other Olympic and Paralympic parents who are constantly navigating the situation, oftentimes, maybe even better than me. I think of Melissa Stockwell, who’s been doing this for a long time and really doing it with a lot of grace. But for me, it’s difficult where, on one hand, I want to be present and making the most of literally every moment with my daughter, Rooney.

When she’s very little, it’s hard to step away from that, because I feel like I need to be there. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but when she’s really little I need to be there as much as possible. I know that, for me, to be the best version of myself in sports, I need to train, but that’s time I have to spend away from her.

The other part of me is not ready to be done being a racer. I love racing. I love competition. I love holding myself to the fire. I love going down to my garage and just hammering on the bike. I don’t think that part of me will ever go away, so I’ve been of two minds. I think I’ve been annoying the crap out of my wife, Sara. One day, I’m all-in, and the next day, I can’t do it. I’ve been going back and forth for the last year. The compromise I was able to make is to say that being a dad comes first. That will remain true forever, but I think as Rooney grows up, I’ll be able to step away and do a little bit more training and racing, and it’ll become a little easier for me to feel comfortable doing that. So maybe by Paris, but likely by LA 2028 is when I’ll feel comfortable doing that.

While I say I’ll be a racer for life, I do think that LA is probably the end of my elite career. I’m just about 40 years old. My body isn’t what it once was. My heart is aflame with the idea of being able to compete here in the U.S., but after that, I think I’m just really going to need to focus on being a dad, and I look forward to that.

What led to your decision to pursue your Ph.D.?

Snyder: After Rio, I had a bit of a pre-midlife crisis. I understood that being a professional athlete is an amazing experience, but it’s a limited-time offer. Eventually, I won’t be able to compete. Eventually, there won’t be sponsors. Eventually, the media will move on to a younger athlete with a much more compelling story than me, and that resource and vocation won’t be there. I need to have a different way of serving and earning a paycheck. I kind of floated around for a bit not really knowing what that looked like, and then, really by happenstance, I was offered an opportunity to go back and do some real part-time teaching at the Naval Academy, my alma mater (in the leadership and ethics department). I found that I loved it.

I was a pretty terrible student when I was in college, and I had vowed I would never go back to school, but now I had a reason. I really want to be a faculty member at the Naval Academy, so I need to go back to school. I need to get a Ph.D. Princeton offered me a great program at the public policy school where I could take various lessons from philosophy, psychology, sociology and distill that into something that might be super relevant for how we train leaders to be ethical decision makers on the battlefield. That’s my primary focus. I’m three years into a five-year program. Hopefully, at the end of that, I will defend a dissertation, and then immediately go back and earn my spot as a faculty member at the Naval Academy.

What has fatherhood has taught you?

Snyder: One thing I’ve been able to learn through that process is the importance of being in the moment. My wife and I have known this from the very beginning that it’s hard, and you’re very tired. You’re always doing one thing into the next, and you’re constantly looking on the internet to say is this normal? And what do I understand about sleep training or whatever else? It’s really hard to be in the moment because you’re constantly being distracted. We’re also trying to keep up our professional careers and go to school and write this and do this workout, so it’s really hard. But being present for the moment when Rooney does something for the first time is amazing.

It’s hard to say whether kids learn to be themselves or they’re themselves already, and they’re just revealing themselves to you incrementally. I kind of like the second view. She’s already who she is, but she’s just revealing that to me day-in and day-out a little bit at a time. She’s got a cool nature. If she’s eating, and I say, “Rooney, can I have some? She’ll hand me a Cheerio.” She loves to share. She loves to see other people. She’s obsessed with waving to people.

The other night I was getting her ready for bed, and I was trying to find the zipper to the blanket she wears. I was actually legitimately struggling because I’m blind, and I can’t find it. Eventually she grabbed it and handed it to me like she understood. I was blown away.

How did you and Sara pick the name Rooney?

Snyder: We were listening to a podcast, and Joaquin Phoenix had some kind of interview. We both liked the name Joaquin because, at the time, we didn’t know if we were having a girl or a boy. But then we found out we were having a girl. For whatever reason, his partner, Rooney Mara, popped into our mind. We both liked the name, and when I googled it, we found out Rooney means two things, either hero or the descendant of a champion. I was in Tokyo when I knew we were pregnant. Rooney, to me, means the legacy of your story. I won gold when you were just in mom’s belly. That’s a cool part of the name. Her middle name is Mae, which is a family name, and we love the sound of Rooney Mae.

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