Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It was as unexpected as it was relentlessly sought after.
Matthew Brewer of Salt Lake City got the news on Feb. 16 that he had earned a spot on the Paralympic Team to represent Team USA in monoskiing in Beijing this coming month.
Now it may be strange to say that something is both unexpected and sought after, but in Brewer’s case, the Paralympic team was only a recent quest and not something he had ever even thought about while struggling through years of difficult challenges.
Brewer, 46, almost didn’t make it — let alone become a Paralympian.
In 2008 at the age of 32, Brewer was diagnosed with testicular cancer that required chemotherapy and took heavy doses of opiates to alleviate the pain. And while the chemo successfully killed the cancer, the medication led to a prescription drug addiction that nearly took his life.
"After chemotherapy, I was prescribed pain relievers that worked well to relieve the physical pain I was in, but they worked really well at relieving the mental pain," Brewer said. "I began abusing prescription drugs, and when I was cut off from them, I began using heroin."
The drug addiction lasted five years, but during those years, Brewer said, it got worse before it got better.
From drug addict to bilateral above-knee amputee
After four and a half years spending his life looking for his next fix, Brewer found himself in jail for possession of heroin, where he spent the next three months sober. It was during that time, Brewer said, that he hoped for an intervention — anything to help him.
"When I was in jail, I told myself that if my family did an intervention, I would accept the help," Brewer recalled.
His family did have an intervention, and Brewer accepted the help, spending the next three months at a rehabilitation facility. Between jail and rehab, he was six months sober, and he was ready to rebuild his way to a healthy and productive life. At the time, Brewer was living in California and took a job working commercial construction service at a Toys R Us in Long Beach. He ended up meeting someone and had hopes of a relationship. However, when that relationship didn’t work out, Brewer said he turned to the one thing he knew would numb the pain: heroin.
"When you’re in rehab, you’re taught a lot of great things to help you stay sober, but one thing that I wasn’t prepared to deal with was rejection," Brewer said. "Rather than calling my sponsor, I called my drug dealer."
Soon, Brewer found himself passed out in a bathroom for 18 hours after a heroin overdose. That amount of time caused what is called compartment syndrome in his legs, which is a result of a prolonged lack of circulation. Because of that, Brewer would need to have both of his legs amputated above the knee.
The amputations caused unimaginable pain to his legs and to the portion of his legs that were no longer there — something known as phantom pain. In order to alleviate the pain, it would require the things that started it all: opiates.
Finding hope and love
"At the hospital, the doctor told my mom that I would be on opiates the rest of my life, and she just cried," Brewer recalled. "I decided I was just going to take them as prescribed, but it was hard. I have a sister who has been my biggest supporter, and she would always wag her finger at me and say, ‘You’re overmedicating.’"
It was his sister who Brewer said helped take the steps not only out of a life destined for more drug addiction, but toward healing.
"My sister is a hairstylist in Long Beach, and she had a connection with a producer on the show ‘Doctors,’" Brewer said. "I went on the show, and they started me on an experimental treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation that focused on treating depression. It was then when my life started coming back."
Brewer got connected with an amputee advocate who then connected him with the Hanger Clinic, and he was able to get some prosthetics. However, with the amount of weight he had gained, Brewer said it took him six months before he had even tried them on. In fact, he said it wasn’t until he went to what is called, Bilateral Above-Knee Amputee Boot Camp in 2017, that he was able to not only learn how to use his prosthetics but to be able to make goals for the future.
Around that same time, he met Wendy Remington, a certified prosthetist with Hanger Clinic. She asked Brewer a question that would change his trajectory.
"Wendy asked me one time what it was about my former life that I wanted to get back into," Brewer recalled. "I told her that I wanted to get back into snowboarding."
Brewer spoke about not only loving to snowboard as a youth, but being ranked 14th in the nation at one time. He explained that when Remington heard him talk about his love of snowboarding, she encouraged him to come out to Utah, where she was from, so she could take him snowboarding.
"I made it to Salt Lake, and Wendy took me snowboarding with one of my old friends, and I was able to get up on a board and ride!" he said. "The problem is, it is extremely hard to snowboard without knees, so I got tired really easily."
That’s when Remington introduced Brewer to monoskiing, which is similar to snowboarding, but where both legs are clamped into a single ski.
"Wendy told me I needed to try monoskiing, and immediately I was hooked," Brewer recalled. "I could go fast, feel the wind in my hair and I could jump! I felt like myself for the first time again!"
Making the Paralympic team
This was in 2018, and Brewer was just learning the sport, but the competitor in him wanted more. He got a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation to get his monoski in 2019, and set his sights on the 2026 Paralympic Games in Italy, thinking it would take that long to learn the sport and get good at competing. He moved to Utah in 2020 to live with Remington, who is now his girlfriend, and to train with the Abilities Center in Park City.
Unfortunately, the pandemic would deprive him of two seasons’ worth of competition, with 2021 being his first real season of racing. Brewer took to it quickly and started placing at large competitions. This past December, he placed fourth at a competition in Panorama, Canada, earning him a letter from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, recognizing him as a potential candidate to qualify for the Beijing Paralympics.
"After getting that letter, I started training hard and studying to know exactly what I needed to do to qualify," Brewer said. "I learned that I needed to make podium at two out of my four events."
On Feb. 12, at the Huntsman Cup in Park City, Brewer was able to do just that, by earning two gold medals in giant slalom and a third bronze medal in slalom. Days later, he was informed that he had been selected to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Games.
Brewer said that he is ecstatic, grateful and humbled as he looks back at where he used to be and looks at where he stands now as a Paralympian.
"I’m 13 years cancer-free, and I’ve had eight years of sobriety," Brewer said. "What I hope is for people to know that recovery is possible. Not only did I recover from cancer, but I recovered from drug addiction and from becoming an amputee.
"I hope people see that there is hope even when you feel like there isn’t any left."
Brewer will leave Monday for Beijing, and the Paralympic Games are scheduled March 4-13.
To follow Brewer’s progress, he can be found on Instagram @6packbrew. He also has a GoFundMe account that is set up to help him with costs as he continues his journey as an adaptive athlete.
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