- AJ Muss was a world class snowboarder and in 2013 he was performing on the world stage at the FIS Snowboard World Championships.
- He competed for Team USA at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
- Muss, now an IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge racer, survived a lung aspiration, which led to a life-threatening condition known as postoperative pulmonary edema.
Many drivers trying to climb the ranks in the world of professional motorsport can talk about the challenges they’ve faced along the way, some greater than others.
Then there’s the story of Aaron “AJ” Muss. Over the past few years, the 27-year-old New Jersey native has transitioned from Team USA at the Winter Olympics to the cockpit of an IMSA race car.
But not before he almost died.
Muss has been snowboarding most of his life and has become a world class competitor. In 2013, he performed on the world stage at the FIS Snowboard World Championships. During training, he dislocated his shoulder. Not wanting to miss out, he decided to finish the 2013 season. Afterwards, Muss underwent what should have been routine surgery to repair his shoulder.
The operation itself went well, but while she was at home recovering, her mother discovered that AJ was unresponsive one night. First responders were called and they assumed he had overdosed on painkillers and inflicted vomiting. However, Muss was not overdosing. Instead of expelling medication, fluid entered his lungs, resulting in pulmonary aspiration. This led to a life-threatening condition known as postoperative pulmonary edema.
Muss was put into a medically induced coma that lasted two weeks. Doctors elected to transfer Muss to a larger trauma center. During this ride, Muss’ heart stopped and he was clinically dead for half a minute.
Muss recovered, most of the time. He suffered minor brain damage due to lack of oxygen during the episode. Muss had to relearn to talk and walk and still suffers from short-term memory loss and struggles to write.
He then competed for the United States at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. But he wanted more. An extreme athlete and adrenaline junkie, Muss became an accomplished skydiver, amassing more than 500 jumps, including 250 while wearing a wingsuit. Some jumps were out of an airplane, some included jumping out of a helicopter, and he even jumped out of a hot air balloon.
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Knowing that the end of his professional snowboarding career was on the horizon, Muss looked for the next chapter. As a kid, he had raced go-karts with his dad and drifted, but a trip to the Indianapolis 500 with Marco Andretti ignited a new fire in him. It was there that he met the man who would become his manager: Brent Brush, a publicist who counted IndyCar legend Dan Wheldon among his former clients. AJ said he first asked for help with his drifting career.
“We’re going to get you into IMSA,” AJ said, Brush told him. “We are going to take you on real races. Let’s get out of the drift.
Muss joined Copeland Motorsports in the TCR class of the Michelin Pilot Series, a feeder series for IMSA’s top ranks. It was 2019, just before COVID shut down the world. He became a member of a satellite program with Copeland and Byran Herta Autosport and finished the 2021 season with four top 10 finishes.
Muss said he finds similarities between snowboarding and motor racing.
“Mentally, yes,” he said. “I think finding a line and seeing what a line is, right? So the line is different, but you have an eye for it I think. And then the mindset is huge .
“The work ethic, I think, is very similar. Being able to work harder than the person next to you, keeping that focus and just that drive and determination, I think, is very similar. But the big difference between the two is that in snowboarding, I have to keep my mental focus for 45 seconds per run. Law? And in endurance, I have to keep it for two hours, even three hours; it was sometimes a challenge for me to transfer: to stay focused for so long in the car. We don’t really have time to go to la-la land. We have to stay focused at all times. »
After waking up from his coma in 2014, Muss could not read, write or speak. But his first thoughts turned to one thing: getting back into competition. He had two months to prepare for snowboarding season. He set himself the goal of being well enough to compete; and achieved this goal.
“I actually had the best season I’ve ever had in my entire career,” he said. “That year I won, in every race, I won every race but two and I got on the podium in all but one. And just had a phenomenal year.
Overcoming challenges hasn’t just helped him reach the top of his snowboarding game.
“I think it made me a better human,” he said. “I think it made me better all around.
“You really realize how precious life is and how it could be taken away from you at some point. And I live every moment like it’s the last. I’m the type of person, I don’t want to lie down on my deathbed and say, “I shouldn’t have done that. Then, ‘I should have done that.’
“It really makes me appreciate everything I do. I make decisions. I live with these decisions and I move towards these decisions. I never look back.
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Muss is entering his second full-time season in the Michelin Pilot Series, with the ultimate goal of advancing to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. But not until he feels ready to do so.
“I don’t want to just keep jumping and progressing,” he said. “I want to earn the right to ride. I want to win here; win the next thing I do. Becoming a fast racing driver is not everything. I don’t always believe the fastest guy wins.
“The guy who knows how to win will win. You must therefore learn to win at all levels. And that’s something I learned from snowboarding. Like, yeah, I got to the world cup really fast, but I didn’t win here first. So you have to win here to then win up there.
“It’s a skill. Knowing how to win and lose is a skill.
As a runner, Muss hopes to continue to inspire others as he faces his own challenges. He still sees a neurologist regularly, suffers from mild depression, and has encouragement for those in a similar situation.
“Count on your support system,” he said. “Don’t think talking and talking about it is a weakness. I’m the first person to say yes, I have mild depression. I suffer from these things and it is not a weakness to express your emotions and your feelings and what you feel. If you don’t have anyone to contact, you’ll just compartmentalize it and it’ll eat you up in the end.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out, don’t suffer in silence, reach out, talk to people. There are huge support systems out there.
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