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Science and Slopes

Life's moguls bumped a workaholic to focus on training skiers

By Sam McManis
smcmanis@sacbee.com

Published: Sacramento Bee Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010 - 12:00 am | Living Here Sunday Page I1

 

A globe-hopping workaholic quits his dizzying schedule and finds a happy marriage between his youthful passion and his penchant for science. Sam Morishima now focuses on training skiers through Endless Slope.

 

SnoZone Endless Slope School

Sam Morishima, left, works with client Jon Murphy during a training session.

Morishima's Endless Slope machine simulates conditions on a ski run, giving skiers a preseason skills check

 

STORY

A workaholic on yet another bender, logging crazy hours and crossing time zones and datelines with dizzying frequency, Sam Morishima awoke groggily one morning in 1999 with nary a clue as to his whereabouts.

With full consciousness, usually, came full clarity. Not this time.

Panicked, Morishima tried to calm himself with what he did know at that moment in that nondescript hotel room.

Your name is Sam. You're an American marketing executive for a biotech firm. You are 46, a husband, the father of one girl. You live in Sacramento. You travel frequently. You've been tiring easily, losing energy and gaining weight. Take a deep breath. You'll be OK

Still, nothing. Could be New Zealand. Could be Colombia. Or one of any number of locales on his itinerary.

He scurried to the table near the phone, rifled through hotel information, then consulted the schedule planner that ran his life. At last the answer: He was in Mexico City! It all came back to him. Until, that is, a few weeks later when it happened again this time in a hotel room in Taipei, Taiwan.

It was the weirdest thing, this temporary amnesia. To Morishima, it felt like that concussion he sustained once at a karate match. Or that time in his 20s, surfing off California's Central Coast when, caught in a riptide, he nearly drowned. Or that time at age 12 when he and a buddy scaled a 50-foot crevasse, and Morishima was briefly paralyzed with fear as his grasp slipped.

Looking back on such times, when he felt most alive yet most vulnerable, now turns Morishima introspective. The son of migrant farmworkers, the grandson of a man sent to World War II internment camps, Morishima was accustomed to finding success as a scientist through an iron will, an intense work ethic and zest for new experiences. But he remembers how the health crisis of his globe-hopping days made him question his very existence.

"I'd be gone for several weeks at a time, visiting five or six countries in a row," he recalled. "All the travel, the jet lag. time changes and biorhythm adjustments were deteriorating my health."

After myriad doctors and tests, it was determined that stalled signals from Morishima's hypothalamus had thrown his hormones into disarray. Experts told him about possible causes and treatments, but the professed workaholic knew what was wrong.

"Stress, definitely," he said. "There's no other thing. I quit work."

More than a decade later, the word "quit" still stings. Here was a kid who, at an age when most boys played with Tonka trucks, drove a tractor on the Santa Maria strawberry fields that his parents worked by having someone put a block on the gas pedal. Here was a guy who, as a college student, hustled his way into resorts by taking church groups to Tahoe and finagling free lift tickets and lodging. Here was a hyper-vigilant employee whose biotech bosses had to force him not to come in to work seven days a week.

Men like him do not just quit. Sam did.

During a long night of existential dread in the year of his amnesia, Morishima mulled his future. His wife, May, was working only part time, and the family needed to save for daughter Sondra's college. But his health and spirits were low. "I need to do something physical," he thought. "It's the only way I'll survive."

Finally, near dawn, an epiphany.

"Suddenly, it hit me," he said. "Skiing."

Sophisticated treadmill

In a glorified storage shed behind the mighty Mighty Kong Cafe in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood, Morishima fiddled with the contraption that's been his main source of income and the object of his obsession for the past decade.

He calls it the Endless Slope. It's the centerpiece of his personal training business, SnoZone, which has locations in Sacramento and San Francisco, Essentially, the device is a treadmill for skiers and snowboarders to hone their craft. But comparing this sophisticated piece of machinery to a simple health-club roller would be like calling the space shuttle a turboprop.

The Endless Slope is the nexus of Morishima's new life, a happy marriage of his youthful passion for skiing and his scientist's penchant for knowing how things motorized ski decks to human bodies work.

The edifice of wood, steel and hard plastic, 4 feet off the ground and at an 18 percent slope, dominates the room. The light gray synthetic carpet, serving as both skiing surface and belt for the motor, is discolored from years of use. Uneven bars, like those on a gymnastic apparatus, anchor the skier, who grasps a sliding pair of hand grips to simulate poles.

All but the most advanced skiers and boarders wear a twisting harness around the waist that connects to the back bar. A fish-eye mirror at the foot of the machine reflects the skier's form back at him or her.

The Endless Slope may look like some Rube Goldberg device, but Morishima marvels at its near-Euclidean cleanness of form and function. He and an engineer built it themselves, hewing mostly to the original 1960s plans for a similar military-designed device but adding a few flourishes.

He patted the front bar like a proud father chucking his son under the chin. "It's like a Sherman tank! Indestructible! You've got to make it so it imitates snow! Ten years to perfect it! If Leonardo da Vinci knew how to snowboard, he'd have invented one of these!"

He turned reverent, remembering when he first saw a mechanical slope. It was in a San Diego parking lot, circa 1990. He filed away his interest for another time. That time came nearly a decade later. Every day for six weeks in 1999, he studied the inner workings of other revolving ski decks.

"I have to know too much about something, overdo it," he said. "It makes me feel comfortable if I understand the structure and anatomy of things."

Morishima's 86-year-old father, Kiyoshi (nicknamed Jack), recalled the time he bought Sam his first car, as payment for his years of work in the strawberry fields. It was a 1967 Chevelle Super Sport with a monster 396-cubic-inch engine. "And he took the engine apart," Jack said.

"But (my dad) also hired a mechanic to teach me how to put it back together, part by part," Sam added. "It was great. The guy taught me how to use a grocery bag for a gasket. I enjoy that kind of thing."

Skiing held a similar fascination. Even as a child, when his well-off uncle, Dr. Mitch Inouye. took him to Yosemite's Badger Pass for his first time on the slopes, Sam was drawn to the biomechanics and physics and sheer rush of the sport. Young Sam would regale friends on the farm with stories from the slopes. But he didn't leave it there.

"These are people in the fields; they'd never seen snow," he said. "My older friends with cars, I told them, 'If you drive, I'll teach you to ski.' "

Most of his fellow workers quickly lost interest in skiing, but Sam was hooked. He flirted with the idea of becoming a Tahoe ski bum, but the family's work ethic won out. Instead, he earned an academic scholarship to Santa Clara University to study biochemistry and microbiology. But he still would take church groups to Tahoe on weekends and teach them the sport.

Jack Morishima didn't know what to make of his ski-mad eldest son. "I tried to let my kids do what they wanted," he said. "But (Sam) always helped out."

Sam did not resist the strong familial pull. He left college for 2 1/2 years to help his father, who lost the farm after several poor crop years. Dad and son then worked as gardeners but saved to open their own lawn mower repair shop. Eventually, Sam was able to finish his degree.

Those ups and downs fit the family's pattern of overcoming adversity. Sam's grandfather came to the United States from Japan illegally at the turn of the 20th century. He eventually bought a melon and strawberry farm in California's Imperial Valley. The property was seized when the grandfather was sent to internment camps.

Sam's father had been in Japan visiting relatives with his mother at the time of Pearl Harbor. A teenager, Jack was drafted into the Japanese army and saw action, though he remained officially a U.S. citizen. After the war, Jack returned to California and later was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War.

By the time Sam was born, in 1953, the family was living in a dirt-floor house in Watsonville alongside other migrant farmworkers. But they saved enough to eventually buy farmland.

When Morishima came of age, his parents wanted a better station in life for him, and he delivered with the biotech career. Yet part of him still looked at life from a ski bum's perspective.

Morishima's wife, May, said Sam stood out in the biotech office where they met.

"Yeah, May at first thought I was the janitor," he said. Indeed, Morishima sported shoulder-length hair, wore frayed cutoffs and roller skated down the office halls to the laboratory.

"He was not the norm, to put it mildly," May said, laughing.

But the years took a toll, and the quirky chemist morphed into a paunchy, chronically stressed marketing executive Willy Loman for the tech age. His illness convinced Morishima that he needed to find that former self.

"This," he gestured around the cramped SnoZone quarters, "is just like a laboratory. You can focus on exactly what you need to learn."

No lift ticket required

Morishima, busy now with ski season approaching, strapped in student Jon Murphy and twisted the knob. The machine hummed to life. In seconds, Murphy was schussing down the slopes or rather, down the silicon spray-treated carpeting. Morishima leaned in, a shank of his silver-speckled black hair falling in his eyes.

"You need a little more pronation on that wedge outward," he told Murphy. "Little movements, in skiing, are more important than the big movements."

Sweat beaded, then trickled down Murphy's brow after a series of weight-transferring drills. Twenty minutes on the Endless Slope, and Murphy felt as if he'd done runs on actual slopes for a full day absent, of course, the wintery nip in the air. Morishima tutors about 80 skiers and likes keeping numbers low to give each student attention.

"Like in a laboratory, I can notice every little change in a student," he said. "(Skiers) need to establish a path from the brain the specific muscle they need to use."

Morishima often will hop on the Endless Slope himself for a workout. He's long since shed his excess weight and now looks at least 10 years younger than 57. His health problems remain, meaning his days of daring freestyle skiing flips and snowboarding tricks are mostly behind him.

But Morishima knows where he is now and where he likes to be skiing, both indoors and on the mountains.

"I tell you," he said, "this has saved my life."

MORISHIMA'S SKI TIPS

With ski season fast approaching, Sacramento personal trainer Sam Morishima says balance and weight distribution are the keys to preparation for both beginners and veterans of the slopes.

Balance: "A good weight transfer and balance point awareness drill is lifting one ski about a foot off the ground and holding it for five seconds. Then place that ski back on the ground and lift the other ski. Hold it for five seconds. Repeat. The key is to balance on one ski with the ankle flexed."

Weight: "If the ski's tip is raised higher than the tail, your weight is too far back. Flex the ankle of the leg you're standing on to place more weight on the middle of the sole of your foot or under the ball of your foot. If the tail is higher, your weight is too far forward. Practice keeping the lifted ski parallel to the ground. Practice this until you can nail your balance point.

"Knowing your balance point and sweet spot now allows you to play around and adjust your skiing."

For more information on Sam Morishima and the SnoZone Endless Slope Ski and Snowboarding School: www.endlesslope.com or (916) 736-0432.


 

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