Before he takes off, snowboarder Brolin Mawejje breathes in for four seconds and out for six to calm his nerves. He listens to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint on the jump — the beat helps him remember what moves to execute. He’s known for his front seven. Spinning with his chest wide open downhill, he comes out of the spin blindsided.
He wears a face mask to hide his skin, which stirs a certain mind-boggled wonderment among those who view him as an underdog the way the Jamaican bobsledding team surprised everyone in “Cool Runnings.”
Mawejje is determined to be the first African snowboarder in the 2018 Winter Olympics, and he wants to represent Uganda. But growing up in Kampala, he didn’t have access to snow like his current Salt Lake City competitors did.
“I wear the face mask because that allows me to have this persona,” Mawejje, 22, says. “No one really knows who is riding or my skin color so they can focus on the skill that I’m putting down on the snow.”
People have sympathy for his extreme back story: Mawejje’s biological mother left Uganda for America when Mawejje was two. She arranged for Brolin and two of his sisters to leave their father and come over to Lincoln, Massachusetts when he was 11. He learned American English playing on his middle school soccer team.
Mawejje lived with his biological mother for a year, but she worked three jobs and was rarely home. Calls to the police and social services were routine, until finally, she kicked him out.
“There’s a little bit of anger,” he says.
So Mawejje moved in with the lawyer who helped his mom bring him to America. That lasted until her husband got brain cancer. At 14, Mawejje started staying with his close friend Phil Hessler’s family on the weekends. When the Hesslers were about to move to the snowboarding mecca of Jackson Hole, they asked Mawejje to join their family. Mawejje finished his last two years of high school there, despite yet another cancer scare (Phil’s father was also diagnosed with brain cancer, but he survived).
But he says his home is wherever he lays his head, and in the mountains on his Lib Tech C2 horsepower board when reality blurs into the background. It’s his refuge.
“I use snowboarding as therapy,” he says. “It’s my only time away from the real world to just be by myself and listen to my body and listen to my heart and get in tune with nature in the flow.”
Snowboarding became a serious prospect during the 2011-2012 season when Mawejje was 19. By that time, Mawejje could show up at different mountains, and without thinking, execute handrail board slides, spins on the rails and aerials.
The slopestyle competitor made it to the Rip Card Pro international series in Argentina. He placed seventh when he represented the U.S. at the World Collegiate University Games in Italy where he was a finalist out of 60 candidates. No snowboarder has represented an African country in the Winter Olympics before, but he’s hell-bent on doing it. To pull off this kind of reckoning, you’d need to be talented and ballsy.
“What I’m trying to do is not go through the corruption in Africa, but the corruption can’t be avoided because it spans the government and the whole country,” he says. “They see me going to the Olympics as a way for them to make some money.”
The documentary “Far From Home” chronicles Mawejje’s journey, toggling from snowy Rocky Mountain vistas to the narrow roads of Uganda to the Argentinian backcountry where he traveled with the U.S. Slopestyle team. In Uganda, Mawejje met the Secretary of Sport who explained they don’t have a ski federation so the country would have to apply to become a member of FIS, and that would take a team of delegates with salary positions.
But the documentary’s true purpose was for Mawejje to understand where he came from. In the film, he reunites with his father after 10 years of not speaking to him.
“I had something to do with it,” he says of the lapse in communication. “My experience growing up and the trauma that I faced and having my father being one of the people who created that trauma, I put up a defensive wall.”
Mawejje explained that his father couldn’t pay attention to him because he had to focus on feeding all his children in Uganda.
“I believe there’s 11 or 12 of us now, which is quite a lot,” he says. “In Africa it’s different, it’s ‘I gave you life, now it’s up to you.”
He’s not superstitious at competitions because he says he avoids thinking about miracles. His is a specific kind of practical thinking that can only truly be embraced by people who have clawed their way out of hell and learned to depend on themselves.
Another reason he doesn’t think about miracles is because he’s studying science. He’s pre-med at Westminster College in Salt Lake City on a full academic sponsorship. Once he graduates college, he’ll take three years off to devote all his energy to snowboarding and the Olympics. After that, he plans to go to medical school for an even higher purpose. Mawejje knew he wanted to be a surgeon in seventh grade. In Africa, he saw friends get diseases that could have been treated, but they didn’t have the money or technology.
“People got their arms cut off, but they could have been easily re-attached,” he says. “The whole of Africa is disease, and that really drives the lifestyle. I want to help create a change for that.”
He plans to go back to Uganda to establish a clinic with the revenue from the documentary. But trying to make the Olympic team will come before medical school. Oddly, when he’s practicing, school and snowboarding take on an intriguing coherence. He brings a Ziploc bag of flashcards to the mountain so he can memorize biology terms on the chair when he’s winding his way back up.
“I started thinking about tricks as isomers. I thought about the chemistry of different compounds like approaches to jumps. They scared me less,” he says.
Confronting fear has sharpened his instincts since Africa, and he uses that when he rides.
“The way they teach you in Africa is if you’re afraid of something, you should just do it,” he says. “From being afraid of going out there with my accent and overcoming that to overcoming hitting the big jumps, I learned I should face my fears.”
Photos via Galen Knowles, Ben Giradi and Jon Chandeler