This week in PyeongChang, Olympic snowboarding will draw to a close with parallel giant slalom. It’s an Alpine snowboarding discipline that pits two athletes head-to-head in one of the purest forms of competition – a good old-fashioned race to the bottom.
And although it traditionally receives less fanfare than its freestyle counterparts, the world of Alpine snowboarding can produce some of the sport’s most incredible stories.
One of those stories comes from AJ Muss, who is one of just two Americans competing in parallel giant slalom in PyeongChang.
Muss’ road to the Olympics started in New Jersey, passed through Colorado, then continued in Austria. But, between a close brush with death and the struggle to support himself in an oft-overlooked sport, that road has taken a lot of detours.
A Nightmare Experience
Being a professional snowboarder can be a hazardous occupation. Injuries come with the job, and Muss is no exception.
He estimates that he’s broken about 30 bones. Fingers, hands, every single one of his ribs. His left ankle three times. His right ankle six times. He still has about six or seven screws in his left hand.
But it was a shoulder injury during the 2014 winter season that changed his life.
Two days before a race, Muss was training when he got his hand caught on a gate. The force caused his shoulder to tear out of its socket.
It was the middle of the season – and an Olympic qualifying year at that – so Muss delayed surgery and continued racing despite the pain.
“I had to continue the season with a completely blown-apart shoulder,” Muss said, “so every time I put my hand in the snow, or every time I would fall a little bit, it would constantly keep dislocating my shoulder. I constantly just destroyed it.”
Once the season finished, Muss finally went in to the hospital for shoulder surgery in April 2014. After a routine procedure, he was discharged and able to return home.
It wasn’t until 48 hours later that complications arose.
Muss began suffering from postoperative pulmonary edema, which means that he couldn’t breathe because fluid was building up in his lungs due to a heart problem. He collapsed, and after that point, everything he knows about the incident is based on what was told to him by his mother and by the medical team that treated him.
His mother, Arlette, was the one who found him. She had decided to sleep on the floor of his bedroom that night. “I guess my mom for some reason, something woke her up in the middle of the night and told her to check on her son,” he said.
Muss was completely unresponsive, so his mother immediately called for help. When the EMTs arrived, they found a 19-year-old kid lying motionless in his room and assumed that he must have overdosed on drugs, which only made the situation more chaotic.
The EMTs attempted to make Muss aspirate, but in doing so, everything that he would have thrown up went straight into his lung and caused a puncture. That mishap resulted in pneumonia.
They transported Muss to a local hospital, but in order to save his life, they needed to get him to a trauma center in Denver. Unfortunately, airlifting him there wasn’t an option because weather conditions wouldn’t allow the helicopter to take off.
The only other choice was to drive him to Denver – a trip that can take several hours when coming from the mountains even under the most ideal weather and traffic conditions. And these conditions were so bad that they had to get the Colorado Department of Transportation to open up a mountain tunnel that had been shut down due to the weather.
On the ride to Denver, Muss flat-lined in the ambulance and, for a brief period of time, was considered clinically dead. The medics in the ambulance were able to revive him, and once they got to Denver, he was placed in a medically-induced coma.
When Muss woke up from his coma two weeks later, there was a tube down his throat, and he was tied to the bed.
“I had no idea what the hell was going on,” he said.
The first thing Muss did was get the nurse’s attention so he could write one word on her palm:
After he recovered, the doctors recommended that Muss get follow-up heart surgery but ultimately left the decision up to him. If he went through with the surgery, his snowboarding career would likely be over. If he declined the surgery, he was warned that it could lead to heart failure and ultimately death.
By now you can guess which option Muss picked.
“I talked to other doctors and tried to find other options that would allow me to continue to snowboard,” he said. “Because not snowboarding wasn’t really an option for me.”
Nearly four years have passed since Muss’ near-death experience, and his health is a lot better. He now feels sure that his decision to forego the heart surgery has been validated.
“The doctors’ recommendations were to try to give me the best, longest life possible,” he said. “And fortunately, I think not doing the heart surgery gave me a better life because I was able to get my heart stronger than it was. I’m in really good shape, and I feel really good.”
He did suffer brain damage because of the experience, which has led to occasional memory loss and struggles with reading and writing. But when it comes to his sport, none of that is holding him back.
The biggest issue Muss has to worry about these days is funding.
Snowboarding has become one of the most popular Olympic sports, but the Alpine disciplines that Muss competes in play second fiddle to more mainstream events like halfpipe, slopestyle and even boardercross.
Muss has tried all the different disciplines and even enjoyed doing them. But he disliked the subjectiveness of judged events like halfpipe and slopestyle, and he didn’t like the variability of having other riders on the course in boardercross. That’s why he found his niche in Alpine racing.
“With Alpine snowboarding, it is me against the clock, and I purely determine the outcome of the race,” he said. “And in finals, obviously I duel the guy next to me, but still, I control everything. He doesn’t affect anything I do. I’m purely in control, and that’s what I like.”
Like with the heart surgery, Muss’ decision to pursue Alpine snowboarding came with a tradeoff.
Muss says that he receives no funding from any U.S. federations, other than an occasional stipend covering something like his flight to PyeongChang. Last year, he had to pay his own entry fee (about 48 euros) at every World Cup race he attended.
“The entry fee is not much, but when you pay for flights, hotels, travel, everything like that, it adds up really quick,” he said. “Without private money and private sponsors, it really would be quite difficult or impossible to do.”
One summer, to make some extra money, Muss spent a couple days each month working as a mechanic for HGK Motorsport, a Latvian auto racing team that was competing in the U.S.-based Formula DRIFT series.
Then there’s the issue of training. While the U.S. federation has coaches for other snowboard disciplines, there’s no real program in place for Alpine at the national level. That forces America’s Alpine racers to get creative. (For the most extreme example, see Vic Wild, who became a Russian citizen before winning a pair of Olympic gold medals in 2014.)
For Muss, that meant moving to Austria in the winters to train under Richard Pickl, who had previously coached him in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
“Austria is pretty centrally located in the Alps, so it’s quite easy to get to everywhere,” Muss said. “So it was a seamless transition and a smart transition for me. And my coach is absolutely one of the best coaches in the world. He’s incredible. So it was the best decision I could have made.”
The team that Muss trains with is very eclectic. There’s an Olympic gold medalist from Switzerland (Patrizia Kummer). There’s a pair of Russians. There’s a woman from the Netherlands and a man from Austria. There’s even another American.
Most of Muss’ training partners – the non-American ones at least – are in a better position when it comes to receiving funding from their federations. But it’s still a relatively small sport and hard to gain notoriety unless you’ve won Olympic gold.
Muss made the move to Austria in time for the 2016 World Cup season. He had been dominating regional competitions in North America, but once he started competing on the World Cup circuit full-time, he was quickly humbled by the some of the best racers in the world.
“It was just like, holy, these guys are fast,” Muss said of his competitors. “They’re really fast, they’re really consistent, they don’t really have off days, and it took a little time for me to adjust. I needed more time on snow, more experience, and I needed to see how fast I really needed to be.”
At the end of that first full season, he was ranked just 34th in the world. In seven races, he had just one top-25 finish.
The struggles continued into last season – until he arrived in PyeongChang for the Olympic test event, that is.
After a strong qualifying round, Muss won his first race and ended up seventh overall. (He might have finished even higher, but a mistake in his quarterfinal race eliminated him.) That performance was enough to give him a much-need boosted of confidence, and it proved to be the turning point in his career.
“That’s when I finally realized, ‘Oh my God, this is possible, I could go win a medal,'” he said.
Muss is a completely different racer this season. He already has three top-10 finishes and suddenly looks like an athlete who could make some noise at the Olympics.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s returning to PyeongChang, where he will get to race on a course he knows he can excel on.
“I know in my heart that I am one of the fastest in the world, and I can go win an Olympic gold medal,” he said. “It’s up to me, it’s in my hands.”
The U.S. hasn’t won an Olympic medal in a men’s Alpine snowboarding event since 2002, and Muss will certainly be considered an underdog for parallel giant slalom in his Olympic debut, so his optimism might seem misplaced.
It wouldn’t be the first time he defied the odds though.