RUMSON, NJ - In April 2014, after a rare reaction to shoulder surgery stopped his heart, A.J. Muss spent two weeks in a medically induced coma.
He was on life support.
Now he’s an Olympian.
On Tuesday, the 23-year-old from Rumson learned he made the United States snowboarding team for next month’s Winter Games in South Korea. The Olympics always feature compelling personal stories, but Muss’ recovery from death’s doorstep is hard to top.
The trauma damaged his brain – he had to re-learn how to read and write, and his memory remains spotty – but gave him uncommon perspective.
“Coming out of a coma, it’s life-changing,” he said. “It’s honestly made me a better athlete. I know life can be taken from me at any time, so I go at it with everything I have.”
Born in New Brunswick and raised in Rumson, Muss displayed a gift for balance at a young age. As a toddler he climbed atop a jungle gym and walked across. Before long he was snowboarding, and doing it well enough to compete on the slopes of Colorado.
Brother, sister from Rumson conquer snow, waves
“They called him the ‘East Coast Import,’” his mom Arlette Muss said.
His rise to world-class level hit a wall after routine shoulder surgery led to postoperative pulmonary edema – an acute airway obstruction. He basically stopped breathing.
“What saved his life was that he was such a well-conditioned athlete, he had so much oxygen in his muscles,” Arlette Muss said.
That oxygen helped blunt the damage, but not before a terrifying sequence of events. This was in Colorado, and Muss was supposed to be airlifted to a specialized hospital once pulmonary edema struck, but a sudden storm rolled. So they loaded him into an ambulance, only to encounter a tunnel closure.
As Arlette Muss recalls it, Colorado’s department of transportation opened the tunnel for the ambulance – but not for her car that was trailing behind.
“I had to sit there on the other side of the tunnel for two hours,” she said.
Arlette finally reached A.J. and was dumbstruck by the sterile surgical drapes that covered his unconscious body.
“I will never forget it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it looks like a body bag.”
As despondency set in, something remarkable happened.
“I’m on the floor, on my knees crying, and I looked up and there’s A.J. with his eyes open and a tear rolling down, and he had his thumb up,” she said. “He was telling me, ‘I’m OK, mom.’”
It was a fleeting moment, but a harbinger. A.J. eventually recovered. He declined follow-up heart surgery that would have ended his snowboarding career, and within months he was back on the slopes, putting together his best season ever. Now the only leftover is occasional memory loss.
“If I have a bad race,” he joked. “I’ll forget about it.”
'Appreciate the journey'
In 2015-16, Muss made the national team for the first time, representing the U.S. in the World Cup. It was rewarding, but the Olympics “is a different stage,” he said. “The whole world is watching.”
Muss will compete in his specialty, the parallel giant slalom. It’s a daredevil’s event, with snowboarders reaching speeds up to 70 mph. Racers compete in a head-to-head knockout format on parallel courses, with the clock determining who advances.
“What I love when it comes to my discipline of snowboarding: The only person who decides whether I win or lose is me,” he said. “I don’t have a judge. I have complete control over my outcome.”
Muss, who is ranked 16th in the world, heads to Japan Feb. 2 for an acclimation period. He will attend the Feb. 9 opening ceremony, and then it’s just a matter of staying sharp until the Feb. 21 qualifying rounds. The finals are Feb. 23.
“I’m not going to the Olympics just to be at the Olympics,” he said. “I’m going there to win a medal.”
His family, including professional-surfer sister Alexa Muss, will be at the bottom of the hill, rooting him on.
“We are so elated,” Arlette Muss said.
She knows if A.J. makes it to the medal stand, his story could inspire countless people.
“The main thing A.J. wants kids to know is that they can do it,” she said. “Go out there and believe in yourself. It definitely hasn’t been easy, but each time there has been adversity, it actually made him that much stronger.”
“Appreciate the journey,” he said, “because it can be taken from you at any time.”
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