Snowboarding his way to the Olympics is a dream come true for Aaron "AJ" Muss — and not even a close brush with death was going to slow him down.
The New Jersey native will be representing Team USA in the men’s parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom at Pyeongchang, South Korea, during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“I’m not trying to go to the Olympics to go to the Olympics,” the 23-year-old told InsideEdition.com. “I’m going to the Olympics to win medals.”
Muss enters the Olympics ranked 17th in the world, and has proven himself at the World Cup, the North American Championship (NOR-AM) and the U.S. National Championship.
Those achievements came after a rare and life-threatening postoperative complication that followed a routine shoulder surgery.
Muss dislocated his shoulder after getting his arm caught in a gate in the winter of 2014. Despite the injury, he finished the season and scheduled his surgery for April.
The surgery went according to plan, and he was discharged from the hospital to continue his recovery at home. But there, he suddenly went into postoperative pulmonary edema, in which the lungs begin filling with fluid.
Muss doesn’t remember what happened over the next several days, but family members later told him he had suddenly become nauseous and swayed in and out of consciousness.
“The blood was going straight across my heart without going into my lungs, and it was like the perfect storm,” he said. “I got instant pneumonia, my lung exploded; I got rushed to the hospital.”
At one point, he was declared clinically dead for nearly half a minute.
It took two teams of doctors to finally diagnose Muss with atrial septal defect (ASD), a birth defect that causes a hole between the chambers of his heart, which doctors believed had caused the complication.
“I was in a [medically induced] coma and life support, and don’t remember any of it,” Muss said. “I remember waking up a few days later […] besides that, I don’t remember anything.”
When he was discharged a second time about a week later, Muss said he faced new challenges, including a tough decision as to whether he wanted to repair his heart and risk not being able to compete in the future, or living with ASD and risk heart failure and other deadly complications.
“I came out of the hospital barely being able to walk, barely being able to breathe. It was unbelievably difficult to do anything. I still had brain damage, like reading and writing was difficult, talking was difficult, let alone picking up a weight or running,” Muss recalled. “I had to find my priorities of what was important to me.”
He eventually decided he would leave his heart unrepaired, which would allow him to continue being a competitive athlete as long as he stuck to a strict regimen and agreed to regular checkups with a cardiologist.
His decision paid off. Muss competed the following season, which began just two months after his brush with death, and took home several first place titles, a significant improvement from his performances before his shoulder surgery.
“I was a good snowboarder before this," he said. "I won some races — I did well — but after this accident, I became a great snowboarder."
Part of what pushed him to excel after the surgery was always knowing in the back of his mind that he wanted to compete in the Olympics.
Muss was only 3 years old when he began learning how to snowboard. His mom, Arlette Muss, would bring her kids with her during work trips to Colorado. Instead of finding babysitters for her children, she enrolled the pair in ski school.
As Muss improved in the sport, his family uprooted to Colorado permanently so he could be closer to competitions and training sites.
“Snowboarding was something I love," he said. "I was passionate about it, I stared becoming good at it and I realized that I didn’t really want to work a normal job. Snowboarding was a lot of fun, so I always thrived to be better and better. It never had anything to do with becoming a professional. I just always wanted to be better.”
He also attributes much of his success in the sport to a competitive side that his sister Alexa brings out in him.
"Between my mom, my sister and me, none of us want to lose," Muss joked. "It’s an extremely competitive household, which helps because I’m always in a competitive atmosphere, so I’m always trying to find that edge.”
Alexa Muss, 17, is renowned for her own accolades in competitive and big wave surfing. She came in first in the Under 16 North East Championship two years in a row and is also the 2016 Under 18 North East Champion. She is currently competing on the Women’s Junior Tour.
“She’s an incredible person," Muss says of his sister. "She’s an incredible athlete and I’m really happy that she found her sport that she loves that she can excel [in] and I can support her. I’m really excited and I really hope she achieves those goals and I’m here to help her achieve those goals however she needs me."