Jeff Glasbrenner was thrilled about his luck: He’d scored a seat in the roomy exit row on his flight. Maybe, he thought, the airline had heard he was flying back after just summiting Mount Everest, and this was their way of congratulating the first American amputee to do so. He popped his prosthetic legs — one for climbing, one for everyday use — into the overhead compartment and got comfy.
Moments later, a flight attendant noticed him.
“Sir, you’re going to have to move,” she told him, eyeing another prosthetic leg that he was wearing protruding from his shorts.
He responded that he was more than capable of helping in the event of an emergency. “I just climbed Mount Everest,” he said. “You want me in this seat!”
She didn’t budge, and he took a walk of shame six rows back.
It’s incidences like this that make Glasbrenner, 45, so enthusiastic about the new action flick, “Skyscraper,” in theaters Friday. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Will Sawyer, a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader, who must save his family from a burning 225-story high-rise. Sawyer runs, jumps and climbs, amid other badassery — and he also happens to be an amputee.
Producers reached out to Glasbrenner to talk to the crew and to offer Johnson tips on accurately portraying the way one moves with a prosthetic leg. On an October day last fall, Glasbrenner arrived on the Vancouver, British Columbia, set and met with Johnson, giving pointers on things like his gait, and how, when climbing, an amputee would never step down with the prosthetic first.
“He played it perfectly. I give him 100 percent endorsement as an amputee,” says Glasbrenner, laughing.
During a two-and-a-half hour, steak-and-rice supper with Johnson in his trailer, Glasbrenner also shared his story.
On July 30, 1980, 8-year-old Glasbrenner was helping his father cut hay in their small farming community of Boscobel, Wis. As his dad drove the John Deere 60 tractor, Glasbrenner rode along on the back. When they hit a rock, Glasbrenner’s dad called for him to remove it, something he’d done hundreds of times before. After Glasbrenner returned to what he calls his “safe spot” on the back of the tractor, his father turned on the power takeoff, but just a moment too soon. Glasbrenner’s pant leg caught in it, and the spinning system took everything below his right knee.
He spent 47 days in the hospital, and when he was finally able to leave, the doctors handed him a sheet of paper.
“They told me what I could and couldn’t do with my life. They said that I couldn’t play sports, and that if I played life safe, that I could do fine,” Glasbrenner says. “The sad thing about it is I believed in all of those limitations that were given to me.”
It took him a year to walk again with a prosthetic, “and I fought it the whole time,” he says. For the remainder of his childhood, he never engaged in athletics.
But his outlook changed once he began studying at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he was invited to play wheelchair basketball. He became a three-time Paralympian in the sport and a two-time gold medalist at the World Championships. To date, he’s also run 25 marathons and completed 25 full Ironman Triathlons, which are comprised of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run.
“I’m a competitive, type-A kind of driven guy,” says Glasbrenner. “So if I do something, I’m going to do it at the highest level.”
In 2002, he married his wife, Elizabeth, after meeting her at a cycling event. They now have two children, Gavin, 10, and Grace, 12, who has a rare genetic disorder that causes her to have upward of 100 seizures a day.
Glasbrenner’s obsession with climbing began just a few years ago, when he and Grace were invited to a climbing clinic for the disabled in Golden, Colo. The climbing bug bit him, and two months later, he had reached the top of Argentina’s Aconcagua, one of the Seven Summits (the highest mountain peak of each continent).
A year later, in 2016, he was ready to tackle Everest, the planet’s highest mountain. With the help of his sponsor, A Step Ahead Prosthetics, he had a $60,000 special limb made for the climb (one of 11 he has in total). The trek — for which another sponsor, Lincoln Financial Group, contributed $100,000 — took two months, thanks in part to required altitude-acclimation training. On May 19 of that year, he reached Everest’s summit and spent 25 minutes at the peak, taking in the stunning view and reflecting on the sacrifices his family made to get him there.
“None of us stand on the top of any summit in life without a lot of great people behind us,” he says.
But Everest isn’t enough for Glasbrenner. By next June, he plans to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, which includes reaching the highest peak in each continent, and also getting to both the north and south poles. He’s making progress. In January, he skied to the south pole and climbed Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, and later this month, he’s headed to Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
Glasbrenner gives motivational speeches about his experiences all over the US, and he hopes audiences will walk away from “Skyscraper” with similar insight.
“I don’t have any limits,” he says. “That’s why I’m so excited for other people to see that it’s OK to be disabled, that you can still do amazing things, that you can still be incredible.”