Once going downhill

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.

Sam Morishima works with client Jon Murphy

Sam Morishima works with client Jon Murphy

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, Calif. 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 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.”

In a glorified storage shed, 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, four feet off the ground and at an 18 per cent 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 handgrips 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!”

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

Morishima 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.”

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