Sean Morris is a reluctant warrior. The soft-spoken communications student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg never dreamed he'd be an "American Ninja." He just sort of stumbled into it.
"One of the things I have always prided myself on is my balance," said the 6-foot-2, 170-pound extreme athlete. "But this was something that I just fell into."
Morris, 26, a former skateboarder who was born and raised in Sarasota, installed hurricane shutters part time to help pay his way through school.
"I didn't really mess around with ladders," he said. "I used to just climb up the side of buildings like Spider-Man. My boss thought it entertaining and said, why don't you try out for that show American Ninja Warrior?"
The TV series, produced by NBC and the Esquire Network, features athletes competing on one of the world's most challenging obstacle courses. The show, which airs on NBC at 9 p.m. Monday and frequently on Esquire TV (go to tv.esquire.com/schedule), is modeled after a similar show from Japan. Hence the "ninja" reference.
"I didn't have a TV so I had no idea what he was talking about," Morris said of that fateful day nearly seven years ago. "So I went home that night, looked it up on the Internet and said, 'Hey, I can do that.' "
Morris had learned how to move like a monkey studying parkour, the acrobatic art of getting from Point A to Point B. He found a buddy with a videocamera and shot a demo tape with just a few hours to spare.
"I just took off the day from work and ran around Sarasota doing all sorts of crazy stunts," he explained. "Next thing I know I got a call back, and they said come down to Miami for the tryouts. I have made the finals in Las Vegas every year since."
Morris, who spends much of his time training on slacklines strung about his homemade backyard gym — a slacker, in the parlance of our times — has an incredible weight-to-body-strength ratio.
"I don't use weights," he said. "Everything I do is with my own body weight. I don't want to get too big. If you get too big you can't do anything. I just want my muscles to be useful. That is an important lesson for everyday life."
When he was still a teenager, Morris racked up multiple sponsorships from the skateboard industry. "But the whole scene really turned me off," he said. "I didn't like the high pressure of competition."
So he dumped his sponsors, hung up his skateboard and looked for another way to spend his time and endless supply of energy. "Parkour was a natural for me," he said. "The sport traces its origins to the military obstacle course. It is all about muscle efficiency."
Living in Sarasota, Morris also rubbed shoulders with people in the circus industry. He met several tightrope walkers, which led him to the new sport of slacklining, which uses a piece of webbing that is loosely strung between two anchor points.
"Believe it or not, when you walk a slackline, it involves every muscle of your body," he said. "It is a total workout, and there is no better way to develop balance."
And balance, Morris said, is the key to his success as an extreme athlete. "Balance is important both literally and figuratively," he said. "Slacklining teaches you how to balance, which puts you in touch with your whole body."
Slacklining will also make you aware of the ground and your own body weight, among other things, Morris said. "So you start to notice what you eat, where you go, how you feel, what you do," he said. "It all has to be in balance if you want to lead the life you want."
There is no way to train for the American Ninja Warrior course, Morris said. And he is prohibited by the show's rules from discussing how he fared in the upcoming season finale.
"I don't really prepare for the obstacles," he said. "To be quite honest, I don't really take it all that seriously."
What Morris does train for, through a daily regimen of cardiovascular exercise and body weight exercises, is life.
"I want my body to be adaptable to the lifestyle I want to live," said Morris, who is developing a video workout routine for the outdoor athlete. "One day I am out free-diving in the Gulf of Mexico and the next I may be rock climbing in the mountains of Tennessee. A good workout plan means you're ready for anything."
Contact Terry Tomalin at [email protected]tampabay.com.