Each Olympic cycle, we hear inspiring stories about how these world-class athletes overcame adversity to get to where they are today. Some grew up without easy access to training facilities. Perhaps others grew up in nations without snow but somehow became world-class sledders.
These tales give us something memorable to associate with athletes who might otherwise remain anonymous, as their sports get the primetime treatment only once every four years. This is particularly true in an outdoor winter sport like parallel snowboard racing, when the only part of the boarder’s body that’s visible is the mouth and chin.
One American snowboarder in this year’s Games has a story about overcoming adversity that is tough to top.
A.J. Muss, who will compete in the parallel giant slalom (Thursday at noon in Korea, Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET), was clinically dead for nearly half a minute.
The medical nightmare started with what should have been a relatively routine surgery in April 2014. A few months earlier, Muss had dislocated his shoulder during training when it got caught in a gate panel. The injury happened halfway through his season and he could stomach the pain, so he decided to hold off on surgery until after the season. When the spring air of April rolled around and the snowboard season came to a close, Muss had surgery in Colorado to repair a shoulder which by that point had been dislocated multiple times.
Two days later, Muss’ mother Arlette was checking on her then-19-year-old son to make sure he was doing okay. She didn’t expect to encounter anything abnormal because A.J. had been recovering properly and didn’t show any signs of post-operative complications.
What she encountered when she rolled her son over is every mother’s worst nightmare.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and didn’t respond when she shook him. “At 3:00 in the morning, he was not coherent. I could not wake him up. At that point I called the emergency doctor line, who told me to called 9-1-1.”
When the ambulance arrived, the emergency medical services personnel assumed that Muss was overdosing on pain medications. That’s standard practice—when a teenager with access to opioids goes unconscious, it only makes sense to expect that drugs have something to do with it. (Muss was not overdosing; in fact, he always took the fewest amount of painkillers possible due to an aversion to the effect they have on his mental state).
Protocol for dealing with someone who could be overdosing is to try to rid the body of the drugs by inducing vomiting. When that happened, he vomited—but no fluid came out of his mouth. It all went into his lungs, a dangerous reaction known as pulmonary aspiration.
“That gave me instantaneous pneumonia and exploded my lungs,” Muss said. “So unfortunately them trying to save me actually made it worse.
“So they get me to the hospital. And while they’re trying to fix the lungs, they don’t realize that I have a hole in my heart.”
Muss had a pre-existing hole in his heart that had been exacerbated by the opioids and being at high altitude. That complicated a situation that was already life-threatening—he had a buildup of excess fluid in his lungs, called postoperative pulmonary edema. Seemingly whenenver doctors would address one problem, another would surface.
“It was a perfect storm,” Muss said. He never pursued legal action against any doctors and says he appreciates their effort during the entire ordeal. “So many things added up to this one incident. It’s so uncommon for all this to happen.”
He was put into a medically induced coma, which lasted two weeks, and doctors decided to transfer him to a hospital with a better trauma center in Denver. It was during that ride to Denver that his heart stopped for close to 30 seconds.
Despite this near-death experience—and it doesn’t get any closer to death than this experience—Muss’ mother said she never doubted her son would be okay, even after doctors told her she had another thing to worry about: the very-real possibility of brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen. She knew her son was a fighter, and he calmed her nerves with a miraculous gesture.
“I basically fell to the floor when the nurse told me,” she said. “You’re basically telling me my son might be brain-dead. And then while I’m on the floor, my girlfriend Karen comes in and tells me to look at A.J. I looked up at A.J. and his eyes were open. There was one tear going down his right eye and he gave me a thumbs up. The nurses didn’t believe it, because he was in a medically induced coma. But I saw it. And that’s all I needed.”
A.J. doesn’t remember that happening, of course. The last thing he remembers from before the catastrophe is eating a Southwest salad from Wendy’s the day after surgery. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in a hospital room in Denver two months later with absolutely no idea what has happened.
“I have a tube down my esophagus,” he said. “Tubes are breathing for me because I couldn’t breathe for myself. My arms were tied to the bed, because when most patients wake up from a coma they freak out and try to rip everything off of them.”
Doctors soon told Muss what had happened—how lucky he was to be alive, how close he was to death, and how he wouldn’t be able to race competitively any longer. Still, he never gave up the dream of returning to compete at the highest level. And after a recovery that was remarkably fast, it wasn’t long before Muss was back on the mountain, more determined than ever.
“It re-prioritized what he wants to do with the sport,” said Neil Sunday, one of Muss’ coaches. “More mentally than physically. He is completely fearless. When you’re that close to literally dying, when you’re given a second chance, you’re just fearless.”
The snowboarder who earned a spot on Team USA and will compete for gold in PyeongChang, now 23 years old, is not free of scars from the experience, both physical and metaphorical. He suffered minor brain damage that makes reading and writing difficult, and he still suffers from memory loss. He is, however, committed to not letting the experience define him. He has no intention of being remembered for what he overcame and every intention of being remembered for what he accomplishes.
“I have a lot of confidence,” Muss said. “I’m having a great season. I’m not just going to the Olympics; I’m going to the Olympics to win a medal.”
Muss’ mother, as well as more than a dozen of his family and friends, have made the trip to PyeongChang to watch the culmination of what can only be described as a miraculous recovery. There is, of course, a sizable chance Muss doesn’t reach the podium. He’s ranked outside the top-20 in the world rankings and isn’t a favorite to win a medal.
There’s even a chance he suffers another injury. If he does, though, all he has to do his give his mother that thumbs up. That way she’ll know he’ll be okay.