Obstacle? What Obstacle?



Parkour practitioners leap, bound and vault through urban landscapes

By Pamela LeBlanc
Monday, July 21, 2008

A dozen strong, they move silently around the base of the University of Texas Tower.

They creep up a ramp, feet on one railing and hands on the other. Cling to a 2-inch ledge with their toes, shuffling past a door at hip level as a befuddled employee watches from inside. Jump from one stone obstacle to the next.

They’re not quite as graceful as Spider-Man, but they’re trying. In best parkour fashion, they move through an urban environment quickly and efficiently, leaping, ducking or bounding around whatever stands in their way.

Parkour (pronounced PAR-koor) originated in France about 20 years ago, the brainchild of David Belle, a stuntman, actor and former military man who had training in gymnastics, martial arts and climbing (parcours is French for route or course). The activity is growing in popularity in the United States, where mostly young males are drawn to what some call the art of movement. Snippets of parkour skills can be seen on YouTube videos, and an example of parkour appeared in the movie 2006’s “Casino Royale.”

Parkour can be done almost anywhere, and requires little equipment other than a pair of sneakers with an extra-grippy sole. Like many martial arts, it’s mental as well as physical. Here in Austin, a group (which includes at least one woman) practices several nights a week on the UT campus. Anyone can join.

“It’s a discipline and an art form,” says Brandon Lejeune, 23, an Austin Community College student and graphic designer who practices parkour almost every day. “It’s not an extreme sport.”

People from around the state who practice parkour will gather in Central Texas this weekend to show off their skills and learn new ones at a two-day jam in San Antonio and San Marcos. Anyone can participate or show up to watch their super-hero inspired moves.

Parkour practitioners aren’t just training to perfect their bodies or to look like flying squirrels in action. Their mantra? “Be strong to be useful.”

“It’s useless unless you can help others,” says Patrick Yang, 26, a UT student. “We’re training in case there’s a need to rescue someone or chase someone down.”

With practice, parkour moves become almost instinctual. He or she develops what is called the parkour eye. “You look at something differently than most people, because you understand how the body can interact with that object,” says Matthew Lee Willis, 24, one of the leaders of Texas Parkour.

Lejeune agrees. “Things people just walk by every day, like that ledge,” he says, waving his arm toward a concrete embankment. “There are so many possibilities over there. It definitely frees your mind.”

When they get moving, they almost flow — vaulting, running and climbing with apparent ease. Nothing stops the momentum, and everyone has their own style.

“Just because I can run up a 10-foot wall doesn’t mean you can’t find your own way to do it,” says Willis, who has been doing this for three years. “Most of us can take drops up to 10 feet after a couple years of training and conditioning. Some of us can do a standing broad jump of 7 to 10 feet. And a lot can run full force at a 31/2-foot object and vault it without even slowing down. It’s that idea of being almost super human.”

It’s a non-competitive, full-body workout. The Austin group stresses safety, and members work together to train incrementally. It takes conditioning to build muscles and bones that can withstand the impact. Injuries are a real possibility, and a “go big or go home” attitude can land you in the hospital.

“A lot of people see parkour on the Internet, the real flashy things — leaping from rooftops and flowing through urban landscapes. There’s a lot of conditioning that goes into that,” Yang says. “The training is key. You have to condition the body in such a way that connective tissues — ligaments, joints — don’t get hurt.”

“All of us have been injured at some point, whether it’s due to stupidity or pushing too hard or just making a mistake,” Willis says. “You twist an ankle or bash your knee into a wall.”

Tonight, Yang leads the group through a series of arm swinging, shoulder rolling warm-ups. Then they do some “quadrupedal movements” — moving forward and backward on all fours on the sidewalk — before jogging around the UT Tower.

“Aw, hips up, come on,” Lejeune hollers as the group crabwalks to and fro. “Keep your booty off the ground.”

Most of the movements are done quietly. “The biggest part of parkour is being efficient and controlled,” says 17-year-old Tim Burton, a three-year practitioner and one of the best in this bunch. “Sound is a byproduct of wasted energy; it shows you’re not completely in control of your body.”

The group moves from the base of the tower to the stairs and patios surrounding it. There they pause for a session of calf raises on the edge of a planter, then move to a retaining wall, where they use their arms to pull their bodies up and down repeatedly. One by one, they drop off with a plop. Then they gather in a circle, holding out their hands to compare calluses, blisters and blood.

“I love life,” someone yells.

“It’s so liberating,” says Cale Moody, 20, a UT student. “I can look at something now and there are no limits. Nothing can stop me — I can find a way to get over it.”

Next they do a run, tackling a series of obstacles in sequence. They hop over a low wall, drop three feet to the next sidewalk, run sideways up a staircase and onto the wall next to it, then leapfrog over a stone ledge.

They do a round of pushups on hot cement. Their palms fry, and they bond.

“It’s not just following a script, it’s about finding your own path,” Burton says. Parkour is more mental than physical, he says, and can help improve self confidence. “It’s hard to climb a wall and jump a long distance, but all the strength comes from being confident and overcoming fear and being smart about it.”

Not that overcoming fear means attempting something stupid. “It’s a complicated thing,” Burton says. “Fear can be your friend or your enemy.”

He leans over stone ledge, eyeballing a 12-foot vertical drop over a 15-foot spread. He made this vault before, about a year and a half ago.

“I started back here and just ran and pushed,” he says. “It was 100 percent confidence. It was the coolest feeling ever.”