Back from the dead: The Olympian who beats brain damage to race for Hyundai

In over 30 years of talking to racing drivers, I’ve suspected that a few of them have suffered a brain injury along the way but, until now, I’ve never heard one openly speak about it. Not one who isn’t retired, at least.

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

Step forward Aaron ‘AJ’ Muss, a 27-year-old former Olympian snowboarder who’s determined to make it to the top in IMSA racing, despite dying for almost 30 seconds in an ambulance eight years ago after a routine surgery spiralled out of medical control. The consequences of that has left its mark on him mentally, but he’s determined not to let it stop him.

Muss races for Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai squad in the TCR class of IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge and has only been racing cars for a couple of years. He made his name on the slopes, racing in world championship-level snowboarding events and had his sights set firmly on the Olympics. 

But that dream turned into a nightmare in April 2014, when he underwent shoulder surgery following an injury sustained in the previous year’s FIS Snowboarding World Championships. 

“I grew up in Colorado, and snowboarding was my life,” he says. “It was my passion. I saw the Olympics on the TV and I’m like ‘Mom, I want to become an Olympian!’ and she’s like ‘Sure you do, honey’.

“She said if I really wanted to do that, I needed to be in ski school. So instead of putting me in day care, she put me there. And every hour that I wasn’t in school, I was in ski school. Over time I favored snowboarding over skiing, although I didn’t really care – whatever it took to become an Olympian! 

“But then I had a really bad accident, and I ended up on life support due to a surgery for an injury that I’d had. And my whole life reset at that point.  

“I died. My heart stopped and I had to be revived. I was supposed to wake up brain dead, that’s what they told my mom would happen. I wasn’t even expected to be there, cognitively.”

A.J. Muss, Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian

A.J. Muss, Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt

Here’s what happened: At the age of 19, Muss went to hospital for a routine procedure to fix his shoulder, which he’d dislocated in a heavy impact against a gate during a snowboard run the year before. This would be a permanent fix to end the pain he’d been suffering since.

“I’d torn both labrums in half,” he recalls. “They did a pretty intensive surgery, called a Latarjet, so they drilled into my shoulder so it can never come out again, it’s held in place by bone.  

“It went fine. I went home but I’m very scared of pharma. I don’t like painkillers, I only like natural stuff, teas, herbal substances, and I get scared of addiction to pharmaceuticals because I have a very addictive personality. Painkillers terrify me.

“They handed them to my mother, so I knew she’d never overdose me. You know, you come out of surgery and you’re loopy on the meds, so my mom was in charge of the medication back home. Two nights after the surgery, she came to check on me in my room in our basement and she found me, at 3am in the morning, with my eyes rolled into the back of my head. I was totally gone. 

“The EMTs showed up and they assume that I’m overdosing, because I’m a teenager, that’s what they do. My mom is swearing to them that I’ve not OD-ed, and they try to make me puke and, guess what, nothing is there.

“But what did happen is I aspirated – so all of the fluid from my stomach went into my lung [a condition known as a Pulmonary edema] and popped it. So that instantaneously gave me pneumonia, so I can’t breathe any more.” 

In trying to save him, the medics had unwittingly just made the situation far worse… 

“They brought me to the hospital at Breckenridge, Colorado but it didn’t have a great trauma center – they were trying to fix me, but as soon as they did, something else went wrong. We had no idea that I had a hole in my heart, and to this day nobody knows when that happened there, because I didn’t use to have it. 

“They tried to take me in a helicopter to Denver, where there’s a really good trauma center, and weather rolls in so the helicopter can’t take off. So I go in a mobile ER and there’s only one tunnel between Breckenridge and Denver on the I-70 – and it’s closed for construction!  

“I had to have a police escort, they opened the tunnel especially for me, so we did a journey that should’ve been 90 minutes or more, I got there in one hour. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have been dead, I’m sure. 

“I know I sound like I’m making this up, because you can’t make this stuff up! I flatlined in the ambulance, but they managed to stabilize me. I was intubated, they put me into a medically-induced coma when I got to the hospital, where I was fighting for my life.” 

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

After two weeks, while his condition was rectified and his lungs recovered, he was brought around – but with an uncertain prognosis as his doctors knew his brain had been starved of oxygen while he was flatlining.

“I woke up and I couldn’t speak, write or read,” he says. “I re-learned how to speak – obviously, as I’m talking to you! – and my writing is like at Sixth Grade level. My handwriting is like a four-year-old’s with a crayon! But my motor functions and ability for sports, that never went away. They don’t know why.

“But I grew up wanting to become and Olympian, and I knew I could still do it. This was just another hurdle. I put my head down and worked hard and basically came back from the dead.” 

After being in a coma, and learning to speak again, amazingly Muss was back on the snow, training and then competing, just three months later. It was a fantastic comeback that shocked everyone who saw it happen.

He adds proudly: “I went on to have a very successful career – a year after my accident, in the North American Cup, which is like the IMSA of snowboarding – I was only off the podium once, and I only failed to win two events. It’s the most wins anyone’s had in a season ever and I was almost undefeated.” 

As an aside, I sat with AJ and his teammate Ryan Norman at dinner the night before our interview. My only clue about Muss’s neurological condition is when he reacted to the restaurant’s claim about its clam chowder being “world famous” – something he repeats over and over, like he’s forgotten the words he just said. But he’s got such an infectious personality – and clearly loves to talk anyways – that momentary ‘glitch’ is barely noticeable.

“I have three, four months of my life that I just don’t remember,” he replies when I ask about his memory issues. “I have also lost some short-term memory, so anything that happens really recently, I just forget about it.

“I joke that if it’s not in my Google Calendar, I ain’t going to remember it. That’s how I map out my day. But if I have a bad qualifying session, an hour later I’ve completely forgotten about it. I know I did it, but why, the ins and outs of it, I rely on the notes I make with my engineers. 

“As an athlete, it’s really nice to have a short-term memory issue, it lets you move on. I don’t over-think too much because I can’t. A lot of being a pro athlete is about who deals with adversity the best. Who can adapt the quickest.

“Like Mike Tyson says, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. You get in a race car with a plan. As soon as it goes green, everything is out of the window!” 

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

Muss has gone through so much, not only the trauma of his health incident but a full career as a snowboarder. And, yes, he did make it to the Olympics – just like he told his mum he would! 

He took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea for Team USA in parallel giant slalom and, although he isn’t officially retired from that sport yet, you get the feeling it’s not far away.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries and a lot of surgeries,” he reflects. “I’ve been under the knife a ton and my body isn’t holding up as well as I’d like. It’s just the name of the game.  

“I’ve broken my back five times, I’ve had six or seven procedures that have taken a toll. I can snowboard for three days of training and racing but then I have to take two days off because I can barely walk. I even struggle to get out of bed. 

“Racing is a lot easier on my body, and with age comes a cage! I wanted a new chapter in my life. I achieved my goals in snowboarding, although I didn’t win a medal at the Olympics and I never won an overall title in the World Cup.

“But I had plenty of success up there, won a lot of races and I’m grateful. I’m enjoying being a student again. Last year was my freshman year [in car racing] and now I’m a sophomore and learning so much. I enjoy not being the best at something but fighting for it, to get there one day.”

After starting out by having fun in drifting – he’s also a licensed skydiver with over 500 jumps under his belt as well as 250 wing suit flights – AJ began racing properly in 2021 with the Copeland Motorsports Hyundai TCR squad. This year, Muss has moved up to the factory team and he’s determined to make his name.

“Racing has become quite a passion for me and my career now,” he says. “I’m nowhere near the peak: I’m still gaining tenths not thousandths. I’m well aware of the margins and where I need to be. But I’m also aware that I’m competitive against people who grew up in go-karts. I’ve been in a racecar for just two years.

“I think I’m good at accepting that I don’t know everything, I’m willing to learn, and I reckon even Max Verstappen learns small things every day! The smartest man in the room is the quietest man because he’s listening. I’m coachable, and even if I don’t agree with an idea, I’ll at least try it. 

“I’ve competed at the highest levels in another sport, and 80 percent of this is mental. We all have the skills to drive, but it’s how you achieve those goals mentally, that’s the key.” 

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

#2: Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb Agajanian, Hyundai Elantra N TCR, TCR: AJ Muss, Ryan Norman

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Muss also says he’s noticed a big step change in racing for Herta’s squad, which is working in his favor.

“Coming to the factory program I’ve gained so much knowledge, there’s so much support – the engineering and support from the guys at BHA,” he says. “Bryan is phenomenal. He’s not just a team owner, he’s a friend and a mentor. He wants the best for us. He says, ‘You might not always be with us, but you’ll leave here better than you arrived.' I just wanna be here forever! 

“I love sportscars. The other cars are your enemies but your teammates are your best friends. It’s not like open wheel, where your teammate is your frenemy!  

“My goal is to become a fulltime factory driver one day. If it’s with Hyundai, that would be awesome. I want to drive Spa-Francorchamps. I want to drive Le Mans, Daytona and, I think… [he hesitates slightly for the first time in our interview] maybe the Nordschleife but I don’t know how well that would go with my short-term memory! It’s such a long track…

“I want to be that IMSA driver who gets called up to race overseas. I lived in Europe for four years and I love it there. But I just want to race cars. Race cars and have fun.”

His story is as remarkable as I’ve heard first-hand – up there with Mika Hakkinen on his near-fatal Adelaide crash and Ari Vatanen on his Rally Argentina shunt. Like them, he’s clearly a single-minded fighter and, at just 27, who knows where his second sporting career might lead?

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