The Extraordinary Story of Uganda’s First Major Snowboarder
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s not even the best snowboarder in his family.
Twenty-four-year-old Brolin Mawejje was one of the more popular interview subjects at Dew Tour 2016 in Breckenridge, Colorado, in December. The Ugandan snowboarder, a relative unknown in the snowboarding world, was invited to “forerun” the event, meaning he whooshed down the slopes ahead of the snowboard slopestyle as a kind of debutante coming-out. Before that, he sat for nearly three hours of block interviews just after the men’s slopestyle finals, in which he did not compete.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this,” Mawejje tells OZY. But he probably should. Mawejje has the chance of becoming the first Ugandan to ever compete at the Winter Olympics — ambitions that are temporarily delaying his plans of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. A late bloomer who began boarding at 16, he’s considered full of potential. With work, Mawejje can make it to an impressive level, predicts former pro snowboarder and current content director for Dew Tour Gerhard Gross.
“Brolin’s current snowboarding level alone probably doesn’t warrant the forerun at Dew Tour yet,” Gross says. “However, his story is so remarkable, I felt it was worth fighting to become a part of it and get him in.”
Mawejje, a dual citizen of the United States and Uganda, was born into a Ugandan family with two siblings and seven half-siblings. His mother, Annette Ortiz, left Uganda alone for America when her son was not yet 3, and Mawejje was left behind to be raised by his grandparents. Nine years later, when Mawejje was 12, his mother sent for him. He was the first of the siblings to make the journey from Uganda to Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Coming to the U.S. was a big opportunity — but Mawejje was boarding a plane toward his mother with some emotional baggage. Why, he wondered, had his mother abandoned him? “In Ugandan culture, the mother is the rock. Way more so than the father, she raises the children,” Mawejje says. “It was then difficult to have her order and command me on the basis of being my mother, after growing up without her. There was a strong resentment.” Behavioral issues — depression, trouble with aggression — stemming from the trauma of abandonment left him on the precipice of being sent back to Uganda. But Susan Mygatt, a family friend and Mawejje’s mother’s employer, opened up her home, and Mawejje moved out of his mom’s house. Things improved.
Mawejje found solace in snowboarding while living with Mygatt and her husband. In winter, he and his three buddies hit the slopes at nearby Nashoba Valley. “Brolin was awful the first time he went up. He couldn’t stay up. We spent the whole day giving him tips to try to help,” says Phil Hessler, who eventually became Mawejje’s adopted brother. “By the third day, he had it all down and was asking about jumps. I’ve never seen anyone take to it from scratch so quickly before.”
When Mygatt’s husband faced health issues, help came from outside his biological family yet again: The Hesslers, Phil’s parents, were moving their family from Massachusetts to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and they invited 16-year-old Mawejje to join them. There, Mawejje finally experienced a family unit — and improved his snowboarding game. Mawejje was unaware of Jackson Hole’s snowboarding pedigree, but after watching living legend Travis Rice’s snowboarding cuts from the area, he became more aware of the riding community.
It’s been six years since Mawejje first stepped on a board, and today he is working on mastering the 1080 and doublecork — two of the most important tricks in the sport. He’s hoping to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, a competition that will likely be won through the highest caliber of technique, like a quad flip 1620 or 1800; Mawejje is unlikely to win but is happy to imagine breaking the glass ceiling of skiing for Uganda. His late start isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Gross; more and more boarders are picking up the sport well after childhood and succeeding into their mid-thirties thanks to improved technologies that have heightened safety and lessened physical recovery time.
The real new territory Mawejje is treading lies in his home nation: In May 2012, he returned home for the first time to drum up support to form a national ski federation — of which he is the only participant. Hessler says Mawejje, who graduated with a premed degree in public health and chemistry from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, last fall, ultimately wants to return to Uganda as a doctor to treat people in his hometown. “We’ve talked at length about opening a hospital together in Uganda.”
But in the short term? “I’m totally focused on 2018,” he says. He trains in Park City, Utah, for several hours every day when he isn’t traveling to the competitions that he does participate in; money comes in from multiple sponsorships that keep Mawejje outfitted from head to board. He’s supported by Adidas street wear, Union snowboard bindings, Lib Tech boards, Zeal Optics goggles and Pret helmets. He is also sponsored by Jackson Hole’s ski resort; it’s his mountain now.
Oh, and he’ll need to set his sights on winning some titles at home first. Mawejje isn’t even the best snowboarder in his family; that honor remains with Jack, the middle Hessler brother, who is also a sponsored snowboarder. But Mawejje is certainly the best winter sports athlete Uganda has ever seen. And that title is a weighty, gorgeous one to carry to Pyeongchang next year.