By Megan E. Davis
The last thing U.S. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder saw was that he had no missing limbs after he stepped on a bomb hidden in a farm field in Afghanistan that burned his face.
Shortly after the explosion on September 7, 2011, everything went black. Though doctors were unable to restore his sight, Snyder refused to let blindness rob him of quality of life.
One year later, on September 7, 2012, Snyder won a gold medal in swimming at the Paralympic Games in London. He took home an additional gold and silver medal earned in other swimming events from those Paralympics.
That was after earning several medals in swimming and running events in the 2012 Wounded Warrior Games, where he served as torchbearer. He is now training for the 2016 Paralympic Games.
When Danielle Zemola of Ft. Myers learned of an essay contest to serve as a guide runner for Snyder at the California International Marathon, she jumped at the opportunity.
As an alumnus of Delta Gamma, Zemola began volunteering and promoting the women’s fraternity’s philanthropy, Service for Sight, which supports the blind and visually impaired.
Equally enthusiastic about running and giving back to military veterans, Zemola was the right person to guide Snyder, said Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes.
“Her essay was just over the top,” he said. “She has such passion for improving people’s lives, and she wanted to give back to someone who served our country.”
Zemola, who pratices with Goede, Adamczyk & DeBoest, could hardly contain her excitement when she learned she’d won.
“I was jumping up and down like a little girl, in my office, like I’d won the lottery,” she said.
Leading up to the race, Zemola got to know Snyder and practiced guide running.
Working with a mobility coordinator at a local Lighthouse organization, she completed runs while blindfolded and while guiding another blindfolded person.
“For me, being a guide is more stressful than being the blinded runner because the person is solely relying on you as his guide,” Zemola said. “I’m responsible for him, making sure there’s not a crack or rock or he doesn’t run into someone, which is a very dangerous thing in a marathon because people don’t always look and might stop right in front of you.”
Additionally, Zemola set a goal of raising $5,000 for Service for Sight and USABA in 50 days. Through several fundraising events she organized in her area and donations, she exceeded her goal and raised $7,000.
“Here’s an individual who went well beyond the call of duty to take the time and energy to raise money,” Lucas said.
When the weekend of the race finally arrived, Zemola was “so excited the whole time.”
After arriving in California, the first two days of the trip were filled with meet-and-greets, special events, and dinners, including one for blind and visually impaired athletes competing in the marathon, which is also the USABA National Marathon Championships.
The event draws many blind and visually impaired athletes, including paralympians, military veterans, and world and national title holders.
“I cried basically all weekend,” Zemola said. “I was inundated for three days with the greatest people I’ve ever met and some of the greatest athletes of our time.”
At the marathon on Sunday, Zemola guided Snyder up and down hills and around curves during his portion of a team relay event.
“We used verbal cues and carried a hand tether,” she said. “There’s a lot of communication during it.”
Snyder also ran slower to accommodate Zemola as a guide.
“He had agreed to do that so speed wasn’t a factor in the context,” Zemola said.
“At one point he got a little ahead of me and asked, ‘Am I guiding you now?’ and I was like, ‘Yes, you are.’”
With a temperature of 27 degrees at the start of the race, Zemola also helped Snyder steer clear of a hazard that’s not usually on a Floridian’s radar — ice.
“He actually felt it before I saw it the first time,” she said.
Additionally, Zemola made sure Snyder didn’t miss any of the fun parts of the race.
“At one point, I just kept telling him, ‘Go to the right. To the right. Right, right, right. And now stick your hand up for a high five.’ He asked what that was about and I said, ‘We just passed the official high-five station.’”
Lucas said Zemola’s excitement was evident throughout the event.
“She was just a ball of fire,” he said. “You would have thought it was a 5-year-old kid going to Disney World for the first time or a kid who believes in Santa opening presents on Christmas morning. She was just so excited and passionate about it.”
After the race, Zemola joined Snyder in a visit to a local school for the blind and visually impaired, where children were learning to play a modified version of baseball with a beeping ball and goalball, a sport designed for the visually impaired.
“It was amazing to see the kids light up because they learned a sport they could play,” Zemola said.
With the race behind her, Zemola’s efforts to help the blind and visually impaired haven’t slowed down.
She’s teaming up with a local friend and blind athlete, the only one she knows of who participates in marathons and races in her region of Florida.
The two are working with the race director of the Clearwater Marathon and the local community to raise money and increase participation among blind athletes at the 2015 event.
“We’re going to be working the whole year to raise awareness,” Zemola said. “We just want the blind and visually impaired in our community to know there are people who will help you do this. We know there are people out there who maybe don’t know where to go or are scared or really just don’t have the resources they need. We want to help them reach whatever level of independence they want or physical goal they have.”