CRYSTAL LAKE – More than 200 YMCA members, community leaders and nonprofit partners attended the Sage YMCA’s Holiday Inspirational Community Breakfast on Friday to watch local groups perform and listen to a Paralympic swimmer with a powerful story.
This was the first holiday community breakfast hosted by the YMCA, 701 Manor Road, Crystal Lake.
“We’re hoping this is the first of many,” said Richard H. Malone, president and CEO of the YMCA of Metro Chicago.
The event was modeled after the Naperville Kroehler Family YMCA’s annual holiday breakfast, Sage YMCA Executive Director Robyn Ostrem said.
Malone said the gathering spoke to the Y’s core message – building community.
Local groups kicked off the event – which started at 7 a.m. Friday and featured food from 3 Chefs Catering – with performances by 4-Strings Attached, the Crystal Lake School District 47 bell choir, the Community High School District 155 Madrigal Choir and the Berkshire Ballet Theatre.
The Rev. Jim Swarthout of the Rosecrance Health Network spoke about the hope those gathered at the event sought to bring to the Crystal Lake community.
McHenry County Community Foundation Executive Director Robin Doeden then introduced the featured speaker, Brad Snyder.
Snyder, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant who lost his eyesight when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, recounted his journey to finding inspiration.
He won his first gold medal at the London Paralympics on Sept. 7, 2012 – one year after the incident that blinded him – and he went on to become a five-time gold medalist and two-time silver medalist at the London and Rio Paralympic Games.
Snyder introduced his guide dog to the crowd first, saying she gets fussy if she’s ignored.
“I had never heard of Crystal Lake, Illinois, before I got this email, but it’s clear you all have a great community,” Snyder said.
He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2006, where he began studying architecture and ended studying explosives.
During his first deployment in 2008, Snyder taught Iraqi military members to dismantle bombs, such as IEDs. He was connected with special operations forces during his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, and he worked with Afghan troops to develop ways to push back the Taliban.
Snyder was injured on a mission in December 2011. He stepped on an IED while trying to rescue two Afghan members of his team.
“I thought I had died,” Snyder said. “Time seemed to stop for me. I was sad I never got to say goodbye to my mom – I thought about how I was excited to find out what happens after we die.”
Once Snyder realized he hadn’t died, he became afraid of what would happen next.
“I fell asleep in Afghanistan and woke up in Maryland,” Snyder said.
Snyder was left completely blind after hours of surgeries, but a visit from an old swim coach inspired him to revisit a lifelong passion.
“We all have inflection points,” Snyder said. “I’m going to be the best blind guy I know how to be.”
He said swimming gave him independence because he didn’t need any technology to help him.
“It was the first thing I did blind that I didn’t suck at,” Snyder said.
He went on to win gold and silver medals at the London and Rio Paralympic Games, but Snyder said the feeling of winning only is fleeting. He enjoyed reflecting on everyone who helped him along the way.
“Individuals never accomplish anything great; it’s communities working toward a collaborative goal,” Snyder said.
When Snyder finished speaking, Ostrem said that the YMCA also helps overcome adversity daily. It supported almost 600 families through financial aid and served more than 270 children in 2016.