Family matters; Brewer's brush with Olympic gold

San Juan Island’s Lee Brewer holds up a copy of a photo of his great-nephew, Nick Thoman (right), silver medal Olympic winner in the 100-meter backstroke.    - Scott Rasmussen
San Juan Island’s Lee Brewer holds up a copy of a photo of his great-nephew, Nick Thoman (right), silver medal Olympic winner in the 100-meter backstroke.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

Aviator. Artist. Actor. Sailor. Author. Classic car aficionado.

Lee Brewer is a man of action, a quintessential Renaissance man, and perhaps the last person on the planet that one would expect to find living vicariously through the achievements of others.

Still, it’s not everyday one has family competing in the Olympics, and rarer yet when that relative, even if somewhat distant, wins a medal. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that even the “always-has-something-going-on” Brewer, at age 88, found himself “glued to the screen” and “rooting him on”, as his great-nephew, Nick Thoman, rounded the turn and headed for home in the finals of the 100-meter backstroke, an event in which he holds the world record (48.94 sec., 2009).

“I guess I was a little disappointed when I saw his name flash across the screen in second place,” Brewer said. “He’s the world record-holder in that event. I was hoping for gold.”

Thoman finished a close second, bested by a U.S. Olympic teammate, Matt Grevers, who won gold with a time of 52.16 seconds, 3/4 of a second ahead of Thoman’s silver-medal swim.

Oh yeah, Brewer also has a tendency not to mince words and to “call it likes he sees it”, as the saying goes.

He’s quick to add, however, that Thoman, a backstroke specialist and former University of Arizona Wildcat, also brought home a gold medal, which he earned by swimming the backstroke leg for the winning U.S. Olympic team in the preliminaries of the 4x100-meter medley relay.

A B-29 navigator in WWII and jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, Brewer, born and raised in Seattle, relocated to San Juan Island in 1968. He built a spacious log cabin on the westside and raised two children, Christine and Mark, both graduates of Friday Harbor High School.

Brewer landed a role in the 1998 movie “Practical Magic”, filmed, in part, on San Juan, and in a Disney IMAX film called “Birds of Prey”, which highlighted the feats of the peregrine falcons raised and trained by family friend Ken Franklin.

In his later years, Brewer has turned his attention to his artwork and to collecting classic cars. His banana-yellow 1914 Ford Model T Speedster was among the many cars featured in the most recent Concours de’ Elegance event. He is also author of a 500-page memoir, “Kick the Tire and Light the Fire”, published in 2009 by Friday Harbor-based Illumina.

Brewer has no intention of slowing down, but he has taken time out to revel in the achievements of his great-nephew, the son of his younger brother’s daughter. Though he admits that he doesn’t the 26-year-old Thoman, born and raised in Cincinnati, all that well, he clearly takes pride in the young man’s accomplishments.

“Nick and Michael Phelps have the same coach and he trains daily with Phelps,” he said. “My niece tells me he beats Phelps -- in the backstroke -- just about everyday.”


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