Making every run count | SteamboatToday.com

Making every run count

Steamboat snowboarder faster than ever after life-threatening medical troubles

Aaron "AJ" Muss flies down Howelsen Hill last month during a Nor-Am event in Steamboat Springs. Muss, who's been training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club since he was 13, is off to the best start of his career. He's hoping his success on the Nor-Am circuit can earn him a World Cup spot for all of next season.

— There's nothing that tangibly changed after this summer, when Aaron Muss should have died.

The Alpine snowboarder didn't as much follow a dream to Steamboat Springs seven years ago as he followed a plan. He didn't fantasize about being successful. As he planned on being successful and training in Steamboat for seven winters, the New Jersey rider slowly closed in on his goals.

He got faster each year, and better and better.

But this year is something else. He's not a bit faster — he's dramatically faster.

So what changed for Muss?

He nearly died, and while even he struggles to pinpoint what exactly changed in his on-snow technique, in his skill in picking a line or navigating a slalom course, clearly something is different.

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Muss nearly died last spring and he hasn’t been the same since.

Faster and faster

Muss is in the midst of the best season of his career, dominating the Nor-Am Cup parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom races.

Nor-Am races typically draw strong American and Canadian contingents, with a few Korean riders sprinkled in, and the stakes are big, especially for young and eager riders. The top three finishers in the year-end standings earn automatic starts on the World Cup for the entirety of the next season.

Lots of races remain, 17, but six races in — a quarter of the way through the season — and Muss is way, way out in front.

He's won four of those six races, including one last month at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat. He finished third once, and fifth in the final race.

"He's always had a good feel for speed and how to make speed," said Thedo Remmelink, coach of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club's Alpine snowboarding team. "He always still had things to work on, though, and we kept doing that over time. A lot of the pieces of the puzzle are coming together."

A season ago, he averaged 21st place through the first six races of the season. He was better after the first four, finishing in the top 10 nine times and winning three races. It was enough to land him sixth for the season — solid, but well out of the guaranteed World Cup spot.

It's not just that Muss is winning more and placing higher this year than he has. It's also eye-popping how he's won.

It’s in one word: "decisively."

"Every race this year I've qualified by over a second, sometimes two," Muss said. "It's a big deal for me."

He'll try to stay that fast starting Wednesday when the tour picks back up for the first time this month. Nor-Am dates await in Holliday Valley, New York, then bounce back and forth between the United States and Canada.

Muss plans to hit as many of them as he can while also traveling to Europe to compete in the Europa Cup.

If all goes well, he could be celebrating a win in the Nor-Am series in the spring.

That would be a far cry from how he spent spring 2014.

Trouble at midnight

Muss' season was finished in early March a year ago, so even though the snow still was falling and the lifts still were turning, it was the perfect time to take care of an injury that had been nagging him.

"I had a dislocated shoulder numerous times throughout the season," Muss said. "Surgery went really well."

He describes what happens next almost mundanely.

"We had some post-operative complications," he said.

Those didn't show up right away. Muss had surgery in Vail and went home to a friend's house in Breckenridge, with his mother, Arlette Muss, staying in town to lend a hand.

The first night came and went without issue, but late on the second night something wasn't right.

Arlette followed doctors' orders, and even when her son seemed to be in the clear, nearly 36 hours after being sewn up, she stayed, checking on him every hour, on the hour.

But one hour, Aaron didn't respond, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head.

She called the ambulance.

Hanging tough

Muss doesn't dream. He plans. His "post-operative complications" have his seeing that plan — the World Cup, then the Olympics — as clear as he ever as.

The problems stemmed from a patent foramen ovale, a tiny hole that's in the heart between chambers where there's not supposed to be any hole.

It's not an uncommon heart defect, and many who have it don't know as it's rarely an issue.

Arlette Muss didn't know, but when she found her son unresponsive, she called for an ambulance and he was rushed to the hospital.

The hole in his heart opened up, a freak occurrence, the product of a dozen things aligning just the way they hadn't ever before and the way, doctors said, there's a 99.9 chance they never will again.

One of those factors was the anesthesia from his surgery, which helped slow his breathing down. Somehow that helped lead his body to near collapse.

Blood went from the left side of his heart to the right. His lungs filled up with fluid, and he was getting 36 percent of the oxygen he needed. Eventually, a hole broke open in one lung, which actually was a lucky break, as it kept his lungs from filling further and perhaps rupturing.

"There was so much bad going on, they would fix one thing and something else would go wrong," Aaron said.

The staff in Breckenridge quickly sought to have Aaron airlifted to Denver, but a nasty spring snowstorm grounded the helicopter and they were forced to take Interstate 70 instead.

Police were able to call ahead and have construction work on the Twin Tunnels on the highway halted so as to avoid the traffic backups that would happen in the middle of the night.

Finally, in Denver, he was stabilized.

"I would have died that night," Aaron said. "The doctors said when I got to Denver, five or 10 minutes later I wouldn't have made it."

It's all secondhand to Aaron.

He was put in a medically induced coma and doesn't remember any of it.

A two week swath disappeared for him, and he woke up in the middle of the night in a Denver hospital bed, no idea where he was or why he was there.

Once he was awake, his path to recovery actually was pretty quick. He was out of the hospital in three days and sweating hard rebuilding his body with a trainer within two months.

Doctors weren't sure how he'd wake up from that coma or whether his brain had sustained any damage from the lack of oxygen. They didn't know if he'd ever be the same.

In some ways, he isn't.

There are plenty of subtle changes, from his temperament to his patience. And, after his brush with death, there's one that isn't subtle: Muss is faster.

Planning ahead

No one — not his coaches and not Muss — is entirely sure what's better on the snow this season.

Muss said he's in better shape than he ever has been in, somehow, despite missing the majority of his planned summer training.

He trains harder.

"I think to myself, 'If I can overcoming dying, I can overcome not being able to breathe very well while running,’" he said. "If I can over come that, I can overcome anything."

In Remmelink's eyes, Muss is a bit more mature.

Remmelink said even though Muss didn't grow up in the mountains, he has an innate ability to read a fall line and he has a deep-seeded love of speed.

He's naturally comfortable with the wind whipping around his face.

That's always been there, and it still is.

But there's something a bit different. Muss isn't quieter — not at all, Remmelink said — but he's a bit more serious and certainly more focused, while still being the loud fun-loving rider he always has been.

"Quiet's not the right word, but maybe it all fits into the maturity category," Remmelink said. "He's a little more mature. He's definitely not a quiet person, but there's something smooth and quiet about him."

He nearly died a year ago, a strong young man in his prime. Now, with the world, and the World Cup, in front of him, he's riding as high as he ever has.

"This showed me how strong my body is and how hard I can push it," he said. "I have a different mentality. I stopped setting goals and decided just to have fun and do my best and put everything I have into what I'm doing.

"As long as I do that, everything else will come."