SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH —
It’s always in the back of Brolin Mawejje’s mind, whether he’s soaring over the snow or fine-tuning his rail technique: What more can he do to become an Olympic contender in snowboarding?
The 26-year-old hopes to enter the record books as the first African competing in his sport at the highest echelon on behalf of his native Uganda. He was close to qualifying for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea when a medical condition threw him off course.
“It’s a life circumstance,” he said matter of factly.
The setback arose last February at the Winter University Games in Kazakhstan, where he fell ill during practice. Medical tests revealed arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat that can be fatal.
Mawejje packed up his gear and headed back to Utah. After consulting with his coaches and doctors, Mawejje shifted his focus to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
“My goal has not changed or wavered. My goal is to still represent my home nation of Uganda at the world games,” Mawejje said during an interview last year at Westminster College in Pennsylvania.
WATCH: Brolin Mawejje Talks About Snowboarding
Video courtesy of Brolin Mawejje’s Instagram account.
Mountains provide a spectacular backdrop for the liberal arts college, where Mawejje is completing a master’s degree in public health, emphasizing epidemiology.
Mawejje has been back on the slopes since shortly after his diagnosis; the Mayo Clinic lists regular exercise among protective factors for his condition. He trains in Park City, Utah, and Jackson, Wyo., near the home of the American family that took him in. He also runs, lifts weights and bounces on a trampoline to improve his balance for the jumps, flips and twists of freestyle snowboarding.
“I have not won any major trophies this year,” Mawejje acknowledged in an email. But he’ll have a home advantage for his next competition: The FIS World Championships open this weekend in Park City. Athletes earn points at events sanctioned by the FIS, short for International Ski Federation, which countries consider when they pick athletes to represent them at the Olympics.
Mawejje took an unlikely trail to snowboarding. He never saw snow until he was 12, when he moved from his family home outside Uganda’s capital, Kampala, to a suburb of Boston, Mass. His mother had relocated there when he was a toddler.
“I came to the U.S. for more opportunities and better education,” he said.
At 14, an after-school program introduced him to skiing and snowboarding.
“I wanted to have friends, so I joined in,” Mawejje said.
Through close pal Philip Hessler, he got a second family, moving with them to Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2009. Both boys later enrolled at Westminster College.
Hessler traced Mawejje’s development as a snowboarder and young man growing up in a foreign land in the 2014 documentary Far From Home, shot while both were students. Hessler went on to co-found the video production agency WZRD Media and works as a filmmaker.
Hessler regards Mawejje “as my brother and one of my best friends,” he told VOA, lauding Mawejje’s perseverance and ability “to thrive in new circumstances. … He is able to straddle being a part of many worlds.”
That includes Uganda. Mawejje says his mother gave him the opportunity and “understanding that I need to go back home and give back to my people and to my community.” He’s concentrating now on the Olympics, but aims to later attend medical school to become a doctor.
“To have a career that impacts a lot of people … is greater than sports,” he said.
Kaye Stackpole, a Westminster official who’s among Mawejje’s mentors, expands on his point.
“He has personally experienced great medical care and average-to-low medical care,” she said. “He wants to elevate education and medical care, especially in his country of Uganda. … I think that every step he takes is toward his goal of helping others.”
Meanwhile, Mawejje works with charities such as the Kampala-based advocacy group Joy for Children on “initiatives that empower the youth and future of Uganda,” he said.
The athlete travels to Uganda and to snowboarding events around the world as a goodwill ambassador for Visa financial services. On Instagram, he tags that company and other corporate sponsors. He also has worked since he was in high school, as a lab analyst at Massachusetts General Hospital and as an instructor at snowboarding camps, among other jobs.
While in Kampala recently, Mawejje participated in a charity event and met with Uganda’s Olympic Committee president to “discuss the path to the Olympics with their support,” he said.
The committee has provided verbal encouragement but, to date, no “tangible support,” Mawejje said. Economic growth slowed in the East African country in the last few years, the World Bank has reported, noting that roughly a fifth of its 40 million residents live in poverty.
Mawejje hopes to get support from Uganda, the African continent and the diaspora. He says his Olympic quest is not just for himself.
“I am just the face going through the journey. … A lot of people in Africa go, ‘Why help him?’ … You are not helping me, you are helping the idea of all of us. It’s really the Olympic goal.”
He cites the three Nigerian women who last February made up the first African bobsled team at the Olympics. Though they placed last, “I am proud just to hear of the ladies of Nigeria,” Mawejje said. “And I just want East Africa to have the same representation.”