Brolin Mawejje has his sights set on becoming the first African snowboarder and first Ugandan to compete at the Winter Olympics. But for this former refugee who now calls Utah home, snowboarding is much more than a sport.
Brolin Mawejje is masterful on the slopes—carving through snow and soaring through air with complete grace. Unless you know his story, you would think he had been snowboarding his entire life. But he was 12 years old before he even saw his first snowflake.
Born in Uganda in 1992, Mawejje grew up in the outskirts of Kampala. His mother fled to the United States to escape Uganda’s civil war when Mawejje was just 2 years old, leaving him to be raised by his father, grandmother, siblings, and other relatives.
“In Uganda, there’s a village aspect of raising kids,” he explains. “I come from a big family, so between my father, the aunties, and the grandparents, I just kind of bounced around.”
It would be 10 years before Mawejje, one of seven children, would have the opportunity to leave the country’s violence and instability behind and reunite with his mother in Boston.
A New Life
The reunion didn’t go as planned, however.
“It was like moving in with a stranger,” Mawejje recalls. “She had a completely different life. The circumstances did not align, so that led me into the foster care system.”
As Mawejje struggled to adjust to his new country and his new life, he found himself bouncing from home to home once again. It was during this time, as an anxious and angry 14-year-old, that he began to find solace in the unlikeliest of places—the snow-covered mountains of Massachusetts.
Mawejje enrolled in Burton’s Chill program—an after-school program that gives at-risk youth an opportunity to develop character and skills through boardsports.
“Coming from a tropical country, snow wasn’t something that I’d ever experienced. All we knew in Uganda was dry season and rainy season,” he says. “Snow and I were not the best of friends, but I really liked being outside, and I was curious about snowboarding. It became a kind of therapy. It allowed me to have confidence, community, and friends.”
Life was improving for Mawejje. “I had a great guardian named Susan. She took care of me and helped me to get into prep school. She was a calm, older lady,” he recalls. “But then her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I needed to find a new place to stay. I had friends who were willing to lend me a couch, but it was my best friend’s family who stepped up to the plate.”
The Hessler family happily took the teen in. The only problem was that they were soon moving to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. So, “they approached my mother and got permission to legally adopt me,” Mawejje explains.
From East to West
At age 16, Mawejje moved to Jackson Hole with his adoptive family and spent the next couple of years sharpening his snowboarding skills.
“My competitive edge came from wanting to fit into my new family,” he says. “To this day, they are some of my favorite snowboarders to ride with.”
But becoming a professional snowboarder wasn’t the only thing on Mawejje’s mind. When he graduated from high school, he moved to Utah to pursue another dream—the dream of becoming a physician.
“I’ve known since the eighth grade that I wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “At a young age, I understood the power of medicine. I understood the power of disease and death and war. I’ve had a lot of family members die from the AIDS epidemic and other diseases that plague Africa.”
Mawejje won a merit scholarship to Westminster College in Salt Lake City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and public health. Because he was so close to Park City, he was simultaneously able to further his snowboarding career.
“I could be in the mountains in the morning and then come down for class,” he says.
But snowboarding is far from cheap. To make ends meet, Mawejje worked three jobs and often slept in his car. He was also able to pick up some sponsors to help pay for his training and equipment costs. Today, some of his sponsors include Jackson Hole Resort, Bombas Socks, and Burton—a sponsor he is especially proud of. “It’s a dream come true because Burton is like the Nike of snowboarding,” he says.
Mawejje’s Olympic dreams are set firmly in reality.
“My path to snowboarding was a little bit late—I’m a whole decade behind other competitors. There was never a chance for me to represent the U.S. because I would be competing against 5,000 kids who have been snowboarding their entire lives,” he acknowledges. “So, why not wear the name of my home country? I know where I come from and where I was born. I’m proud of it.”
But, as Mawejje explains, “You can’t just show up in an Olympic year or within an Olympic qualification cycle and say, ‘Oh, by the way, my mother was born in this country.’ There’s so much that has to go into it.”
Mawejje’s biggest hurdle was persuading the Ugandan government that they should allow him to create a Ugandan winter sports federation—an important step required by the International Olympic Committee.
“I had to convince a whole tropical country that really puts all their dimes into two Olympic medals—which are [Summer Olympics] running medals—to open a whole division and believe in the idea of changing the image of a nation and of a people,” he says.
Mawejje’s tenacity paid off. In 2017, with the support of the Ugandan government behind him, he was able to travel to Kazakhstan to compete at the 28th Winter University Games for a chance to represent Uganda in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
In Kazakhstan, Mawejje had a remarkable performance.
“I broke so many barriers,” he recalls. “I proved a lot of things to myself, and I was moving up the ranks. I was in sixth place.”
During the last series of competitions, however, Mawejje’s Olympic dreams were suddenly derailed when he landed in the hospital with what doctors deemed to be a life-threatening heart arrhythmia.
“Throughout the competition, you have checkups. A lot of countries bring their own doctors, but I couldn’t bring my own, so I just ended up getting a general checkup,” he explains. “My heart was beating at such an abnormally slow pace that they thought I was dying. The doctors were telling me that I had a hole in my heart and that they needed me to sign away my organs.”
He continues, “My whole life was breaking down in Kazakhstan. So, I called my mother. Doctors were shocked when a white lady showed up. That’s where it helped to have dual citizenship—to have a little bit of American power on my side. Long story short, it really put a pause on my life.”
After conducting further tests at Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors gave Mawejje a clean bill of health.
“What happened in Kazakhstan was a misunderstanding of African American anatomy and how my body works,” says Mawejje.
But the damage was done—his shot at the 2018 Winter Olympics was gone.
An Uncertain Future
Devastated but not defeated, Mawejje jumped back into competitive snowboarding.
“I had that hunger from missing an Olympics, so we just hit the ground running at the world championships,” he says.
He also took the opportunity to continue his path toward medical school.
“I went back and earned my master’s degree in epidemiology. Here we are a couple of years later, and the world is dealing with a pandemic that requires epidemiologists. It’s kind of ironic.”
COVID-19 has made Mawejje’s future at the 2022 Winter Olympics even more uncertain.
“I have created a spot for Uganda, but I still have to go through the qualification—I now have to compete to put my name into that spot,” he says. “It’s hard. A lot of the competitions are getting backed up right before the Olympics, and that’s a huge challenge.”
More Than a Sport
Mawejje won’t know if he qualifies for the 2022 Winter Olympics for a few more weeks. But whether he makes it or not, he intends to make an impact on the world.
“I love snowboarding, but it’s not my only identity, and it’s not everything,” he says. “Snowboarding is more of a tool. It can be my platform for bigger and better things.”
One of those “better things” is working with Joy for Children Uganda and Girls Not Brides—nonprofits that work to promote gender equality and end child marriage in Uganda. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this journey I’m on, but I’m always looking for ways to give back and pay it forward,” Mawejje says.
He also volunteers at Chill Salt Lake City, a branch of Burton’s nonprofit that helped to spark his own passion for snowboarding as a youth. He is even serving as an official Chill ambassador.
“I want people to understand that I’m here to stay,” he says. “I want to be involved in Utah and see what more I can do for this community that has given me so much.”
As Brolin Mawejje continues to blaze his trail in competitive snowboarding, he aims to give hope to his fellow Ugandans and others around the world.
“I want to show that you can do anything, regardless of where you come from or how far-fetched your dream may sound,” he says. “Maybe I make it to the Olympics. Maybe I’ve paved the way for someone else to pick up the torch. My motto is ‘Train strong, train well, give myself a chance.’ I’m just going to train and compete, and we’ll see where the cards lie. If I don’t make it to the Olympics, I’ll still be proud knowing how far I’ve come. For me, it’s the journey, not the destination.”
To learn more about Brolin Mawejje’s snowboarding journey, follow him on Instagram at @thabyron_ma.
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