Matthew Brewer competes in Beijing. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
When Para alpine skier Matthew Brewer found out he made the final roster to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of redemption.
The 46-year-old bilateral amputee has taken a more difficult path than most to claim his place as a Paralympian. The journey has contained numerous roadblocks including cancer, drugs, recovery, rejection and relapse before ultimately leading to a place of peace.
Brewer was attending a bilateral amputee ski camp in Park City, Utah, when he got the word he was going to Beijing. He and his girlfriend, Wendy Remington, a certified prosthetist with Hanger Clinic, put together the camp to teach amputees how to monoski.
“I was skiing at the moment I found out,” said Brewer, a California native who now lives in Salt Lake City. “It eased the pain of what I went through early on, especially fresh off of losing my legs to a heroin overdose (and) years of guilt and shame. It kind of came full circle.”
In 2008, Brewer was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatments. Although the chemo was successful, doctors prescribed opiates for pain relief. This eased the physical pain but led to an addiction of prescription drugs. Once the painkillers were cut off, Brewer turned to heroin.
For the next five years, Brewer’s life spun out of control. He was arrested for heroin possession and served three months in jail. After his family stepped in to help, he spent three months at a rehabilitation center, took a job in construction and was on his way to turning his life around.
Brewer found love, or so he thought. His feelings were not reciprocated, and the relationship didn’t work out. He felt rejected and turned back to heroin.
His lowest point occurred one day after passing out in a bathroom for 18 hours from a heroin overdose. The incident caused compartment syndrome in both legs — a condition resulting from a lack of circulation. Doctors were forced to amputate both legs above the knee. The process caused what is known as phantom pain, and it was excruciating. To relieve it, Brewer was given the one option that had been both a blessing and a curse during his cancer treatment: opiates. His pain management doctor told Brewer and his parents he would need them for the rest of his life.
“My mom just broke down in tears,” Brewer said. “She was like, ‘There’s got to be a better way’.”
Brewer found another way, but it took time. He became more physically active on his prosthetics, which gradually desensitized his limbs and eliminated the pain. It was over two years before he had completely weaned himself off opiates for the second time.
“Going through that and detoxing off the opiates and figuring out that my pain levels weren’t really as high as I thought they were was the beginning of my whole life I’m living now,” he said.
It was during that period when Brewer met Remington. The two became close, and she encouraged him to try snowboarding, a sport he had previously excelled in. As a boy, Brewer won several medals in slopestyle and halfpipe, and was ranked as high as 14th in the nation. After sustaining a concussion following a crash, he stepped away from the sport.
Remington took Brewer snowboarding where she lived in Utah. While it felt good to get on a snowboard again, he found it difficult to navigate the course without knees and became tired easily.
“I could only take two or three runs in a day, and I would be exhausted,” Brewer said. “I didn’t love the fact I couldn’t hit jumps anymore and that I couldn’t go as fast as I once did.”
That’s when Remington suggested Brewer try monoskiing, and he took to it almost immediately. He began taking lessons from Paralympian Stephani Victor and trained with the National Ability Center High Performance Team in Park City. After receiving a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation in 2019, he moved to Salt Lake City permanently to be with Remington and set his sights on becoming a Paralympian.
Brewer had a meteoric rise to the Beijing Games. Last December, he took fourth in super-G in the North American Series in Panorama, Canada, which made him a potential candidate for a spot on Team USA’s Para alpine roster. In February, he earned two gold medals in giant slalom and a bronze in slalom at the Huntsman Cup. That same week, he was informed he had earned his first Paralympic berth.
Brewer credits his parents, sister and Remington for not giving up on him, even at his lowest moments.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “My mom and dad are super supportive as is my sister. Meeting Wendy and finding love in somebody that understands what I’m going through as an amputee because she works with amputees has been life-changing without a doubt.”
In Beijing, Brewer finished 12th in slalom and 25th in giant slalom. Even though he didn’t make the podium, he believes he won something more important.
“All the people that supported me in my journey, I feel like I won for them,” Brewer said. “I had very low expectations of myself and the success that I was going to see post-amputation. Now I know I can succeed in anything I set my mind to and show the world that recovery is possible.”
As for his future, Brewer plans to spend time surfing this summer and hopes to compete in the 2028 LA Paralympics in that event. He’s also eyeing a return to the next Winter Paralympics in Milano Cortina in 2026.
“We’ve got world cup and world championships again next year,” Brewer said. “I’m hoping to make it out to that and get a little more experience under my belt.”