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Aaron “AJ” Muss is the modern-day daredevil. When he’s not at skydiving out of planes during his free time, he’s at the wheel of a Lamborghini Huracán Super Trofeo Evo2, trying to make a name for himself in the North American championship.
That is, if people aren’t already aware of the quite frankly astonishing life story Muss has endured prior to even sitting in a race car.
An Olympic snowboarder hailing from New Jersey but who grew up in the winter sports haven of Colorado, Muss is thankful just to be alive. In fact, the 26-year-old almost died in 2014, after a routine surgery took a turn for the worse.
“Legally I did actually die and had to be revived,” begins Muss. “I had post-operative complications from a shoulder surgery, where I went into a high altitude post-operative oedema. In laymen’s terms, I had a hole in my heart, and they don’t know how it formed; my lungs filled up with fluid too.
“And I guess when they see kids at a young age like this, they have to assume that it was an overdose and when the EMT showed up, they tried to make me puke whatever drugs I had in my system, which I obviously didn’t have, and that made me aspirate which put all the puke into my lung and it blew up my lung.
“I got instantaneous pneumonia, so they rushed me to the hospital, to the trauma centre up in Breckenridge, Colorado, which is at about 7,000ft above sea level, so I’m already at a deficit of oxygen, plus my lungs are filled up with liquid. So, it was like a perfect storm, and they couldn’t treat me.”
The decision was then taken to try and transport Muss to a local hospital in Denver, but inclement weather suddenly made it too dangerous for the helicopter to fly, leaving an ambulance as the only other alternative.
Inside a ‘mobile ER unit’, Muss then arrived at the trauma centre in Denver, which is where he flat lined and was placed into a medically induced coma in an attempt to redress the significantly reduced levels of oxygen in his system.
“I was slowing dying,” recounts Muss. “I flat lined and they revived me, and they put me in the coma for about a month.”
Muss had been competing on the FIS Snowboarding World Cup scene in Europe and had just finished the season in Germany, having nursed a shoulder injury – caused by a dislocation while racing in the parallel giant slalom discipline.
The surgery was necessitated to allow Muss to quickly resume training in the summer off-season to enable him to return to competition without serious delay, but it ended up nearly costing him his life.
In his own words, Muss is ‘an open book’ and has no hesitation looking back on this dark period of his life. Indeed, it is this near disaster which had the most positive impact on his outlook and approach to high-level sporting competition.
“Honestly, I live every day as if it is my last,” Muss admits. “It has definitely changed my outlook on life for the better, my approach, my mental outlook on everything.
“I was a good snowboarder before the accident, but I became a great one after because my mindset changed. In sport, yes you need to have the physical attributes, but 70 or 80% of it is a mental game.
“And I stopped caring about the little things and really was just able to focus on the things I needed to in order to be the best athlete I could be and achieve my goals. And when I came back, I just didn’t care about the consequences, and because of that I ended up winning more races than any American ever in the World Cup.”
The switch of attitude that Muss had to adopt invariably helped him achieve his greatest feat: representing his country at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018.
“The Olympics don’t define me as a person, they define my achievements and efforts,” says Muss. “The support I got from my family and friends allowed me to go out there and just enjoy the moment for what it was.
“Looking back on the Olympics, it was an honour to represent my country to the best of my ability. It was the highest and the lowest moment of my career, because I had built it up to be this amazing thing and when I didn’t get the result that I wanted, it was hard on me.
“But I wouldn’t change anything. Competing at the Olympics is one thing, but the best moment for me was walking out in the opening ceremony, walking out with the flag and your nation, that was the culmination of 20 years of work and effort.”
Muss’s frustration of his Olympic journey is perhaps one we can all relate to. Running third and in the bronze medal position after the first of two runs in the parallel giant slalom competition, he fell in the second and missed out on a step on the podium.
Having reached his own personal and sporting Everest, Muss then decided to call time on his snowboarding career. Recurring back injuries and age was making life as an elite winter sports athlete tougher and tougher.
He needed a new challenge and found it pretty quickly with motorsport in 2020.
“I broke my back a few times and I figured, ‘with age comes a cage’ and I thought that racing was a lot less stressful on my body and I always liked cars and luckily had the opportunity.
“I did a test in a TCR touring car and was able to raise budget and go racing. Fortunately, I was able to make it happen, because I cannot work in an office!”
Muss raced in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge in the TCR class and, before long, he moved up to GT racing, contesting three rounds in Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America at the back end of last season.
His entry into the one-make series was sensational, winning his first race in the Am category at NOLA Motorsports Park in Louisiana.
From then on, it’s been an upward curve which allowed Muss to finish this year’s campaign fourth in the Am standings, despite missing the final North America races at Vallelunga in November.
“The biggest difference for me with the Super Trofeo is the pace at which everything happens now,” says Muss. “The TCR cars are awesome, but everything happens a lot slower; the Super Trofeo car is amazing, it has so much power. I love it, I love the adrenaline rush you get for 50-minutes solid.
“It’s an absolute monster and to be really fast, you have to be on the limit and a little bit over it and to me, that is the best part about racing.
“When you’re battling, you’re battling the other drivers, the track but also the car itself. I’ve managed to get a good number of podiums this year, I’m happy to have had the success that I’ve had so far, and I can’t wait to step up to the Pro-Am or Pro category next season.”
Muss has made no secret of his desire to remain in Super Trofeo North America and is already aiming for the top. Perhaps that is unsurprising for someone who grew up with elite competition in his blood.