IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge drivers are a wide-ranging bunch, but fewer have followed a more eclectic path into the sport than Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian’s AJ Muss, who had previously targeted an Olympic career in snowboarding. But that’s not the half of it.
Muss was less than four months away from the opening of snowboard season and the start of what he hoped would be his journey to the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Thoughts of the Olympics were tossed aside, however, when a series of events that he described as “Chernobyl-like” left him in a medically-induced coma and fighting for his life in a hospital, where he was legally declared dead.
The event that triggered this cascade of adversity and left him with a traumatic brain injury wasn’t a devastating snowboard or car crash. It was a routine shoulder surgery.
Eight years on and with a new outlook on life — and death — Muss has put his days as a professional snowboarder behind him and taken up a new high-speed sport: racing.
Muss spent most of his childhood in Colorado where his family lived and worked on a ranch. As a result of working with his family on the ranch, Muss was homeschooled and had his winters off. Instead of putting AJ in daycare when his mother went off to work, he was enrolled in ski school.
It was during those Colorado winters on the slopes that Muss fell in love with snowboarding and skiing. Naturally, the idea of making it to the Winter Olympics intrigued Muss and he set his sights on getting to the games at some point in his life.
“My story’s a little different than I feel like most Olympians,” Muss said. “I feel like most athletes are like, ‘This is the sport I love, I want to be the best in this sport,’ which is true for me but I always wanted to be an Olympian.
“I didn’t care what sport it was; it just happened to be I was snowboarding at the time so this is the avenue I’m going to take to become an Olympian. Being an Olympian was my end goal. Being the best in the sport happened to be a part of that goal.”
Ultimately, Muss qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics and achieved his goal. He finished 20th out of 32 competitors in the parallel giant slalom and was 0.13s shy of qualifying for the round of 16 elimination bracket.
Long before he made his appearance representing Team USA in Pyeongchang, he underwent shoulder surgery. The surgery was scheduled for just four months before the start of snowboarding season but as it was routine, he would have plenty of time to recover before beginning the long process of qualifying for the Olympic Games.
It was during that operation that things began to take a turn. First, the procedure was set for a hospital in Vail, Colorado — a mountain town that sits 8,150 feet above sea level — and he would be recovering at a friend’s house in Breckenridge, Colorado, at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
Second, as a prospective Olympian, Muss was limited in the types of medication he could be prescribed. Third, in order to speed up his recovery, Muss had wrapped his shoulder in a system that iced and applies pressure to his muscles at 20-minute intervals. The high-altitude, the medication, and the muscle recovery system combined with one additional factor: patent foramen ovale.
According to the Mayo Clinic, PFO is a relatively common condition where a hole inside the heart fails to close after birth. A PFO generally doesn’t cause complications. It occurs in about one out of four people, most of whom are untreated for it.
Doctors are unsure if the PFO in Muss’ heart was the result of a mistake during surgery or if it had existed since birth. Regardless, its presence — along with the other factors — combined to create a perfect storm.
“I always joked that it was like the Chernobyl effect –nothing was supposed to happen but the situation just made it happen,” Muss said.
That situation led to Muss being placed into a medically-induced coma after he became ill with high-altitude, postoperative, pulmonary edema.
“Pulmonary edema is a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs,” the Mayo Clinic explains on its website. “This fluid collects in the numerous air sacs in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
“In most cases, heart problems cause pulmonary edema. But fluid can collect in the lungs for other reasons, including pneumonia, exposure to certain toxins and medications, trauma to the chest wall, and traveling to or exercising at high elevations.”
Muss’ lungs filled with fluid before eventually collapsing, his heart stopped, and his pulse flatlined.
“Before I got to the hospital I had to be revived, I flatlined, died — legally dead,” Muss related.
Once stabilized, he was placed in a coma for five days. Muss emerged from the coma with a new outlook on life and any fear of death he might have once had was gone.
“My mental outlook on life changed the moment I woke up. I’m honestly more of a relaxed person, more peaceful with life because I find it so precious — how quickly it can be taken from you. By the same token, I have zero fear of death.
“Death is the easiest thing in the world. It is something that we should not be afraid of — it’s inevitable in life. I don’t ever really think of the repercussions of my actions when it comes to death-defying things. I don’t really have much fear. Fear doesn’t exist in me.”
The time he spent without a pulse and in a coma left him with a traumatic brain injury that still hampers his reading and writing. His speech, once also affected, has mostly returned to normal. He visits a team of doctors every two weeks to aid in his recovery process but to also screen for potential problems that might be lingering.
The season that followed Muss’ coma ended up being the best of his career.
“From the day I woke up from the coma to the first event, I think was four-ish months, give or take, and I actually had the best season I’ve ever had in my career. I won over 90% of every race I entered that year and I was off the podium only once. I think that really plays into the fact that all these sports are is mental,” Muss said.
After reaching his goal of competing at the Olympics, Muss sought a new challenge in the world of motorsports. He attended the Indy 500 with a group of friends, one of whom was a close friend of Marco Andretti. He tested a Hyundai Veloster with Forty7 Motorsports and spent time racing Formula Drift.
Ultimately, it was the team aspect of sports car racing that Muss fell for. Despite having spent most of his career as a snowboarder, where he was competing on his own, he adapted quickly to a team sport.
“Working with the team and with a co-driver came pretty naturally, the only thing I really am learning — and I’m still working on today, and I think every race car driver works on — is communicating with engineers… I’m always working on how to get my feelings in the car down on paper to then give my engineer the best information so he can make the best decisions on setup,” Muss said.
Muss — who will team with Ryan Norman in a Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian-entered Hyundai TCR at Sebring — hasn’t decided what role snowboarding will play in this new phase of life, but in the same way that he set his sights on the Olympics, he has made sports car racing’s biggest events the objectives for his career in racing.
“My goal in racing is to one day compete and be competitive at Le Mans and the Rolex 24,” he said. “Those are my pinnacles.”