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Building a Movement 

On a bright spring morning in downtown Columbus, Ohio, it seems as though Battelle Riverfront Park has been invaded by flying monkeys. Or maybe they're recruits for a cadre of urban acrobats -- anyway, it's difficult for Saturday passersby to tell why 120 boys and young men, and about 10 young women, are taking running leaps at 9-foot concrete walls, scrabbling up their sheer faces, vaulting over fences and scaling steep handrails on all fours, like some rogue detail of oversized, sneaker-footed lemurs.

It's not work, obviously. But it is serious business, this sport of parkour.

Parkour -- the art of moving through one's environment efficiently, often by acrobatic means -- started in France. (Its practitioners are called traceurs.). Via the Internet, it's spread all over, and this May 24 session is part of the Memorial Day Weekend International Parkour Expo. With 150 participants, the four days of improvised parkour "jams," training sessions and talks is likely the largest U.S. gathering to date. It's sponsored by Parkour Horizons, a small group whose co-founders include a couple of Ohio State University students. Participants have come from all across the U.S. -- Arizona, Georgia, a group from Pittsburgh -- to learn from some of the young sport's European reigning masters.

Parkour is edging into the public consciousness, thanks in part to vehicles like the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, which opened with a spectacular construction-site foot chase featuring parkour pioneer Sebastién Foucan. The maneuvers in Columbus are much less ambitious, of course: Participants vault not from construction cranes onto steel girders suspended in mid-air, but between yard-high walls separating well-swept sidewalks. But the techniques are much the same.

click to enlarge Par-corps: Local traceurs Andrew Obenreder (left), Joe Thompson and James Phillips get a jump on Oakland's Frick Fine Arts Building. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Par-corps: Local traceurs Andrew Obenreder (left), Joe Thompson and James Phillips get a jump on Oakland's Frick Fine Arts Building.

All but a few of the participants are under 25 -- many are in high school -- and though the sport is small, it's growing fast. Only a couple dozen of these traceurs have been at it for as many as three years; about half have less than a year's experience.

The sport's newness is also evident during the training session, which begins with some innocuous shoulder rolls led by the deep-voiced French parkour icon known simply as Forrest. Just halfway into the 45-minute warm-up, however, the cheerfully ball-busting Forrest has the kids moaning, grimacing, feeling the burn. "My shirt is going to spontaneously combust," says one.

And with rapid growth comes change -- which no doubt will take intriguing forms as a deliberately anarchic sport struggles to define itself. Even as Dan Edwardes, the tall, trim Briton from Parkour Generations, begins to lead conditioning drills, he works in mini lectures about the importance of discipline.

"It's not a game," he says. "It's something you want to do for life."

In Pittsburgh, it's likely that parkour's longest-term practitioners include Drew Obenreder and a few of his friends. The 17-year-old Verona resident learned about parkour in 2003, from a grade-school friend who told him about crazy Internet videos from the U.K. -- people vaulting walls and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Obenreder's interest leapt when he found cohorts in classmates James Phillips and Sam Magiske, his partners in Parkour Free Running International, or PKFR.

Obenreder, a lanky 6-footer, has short dark hair, scruffy sideburns, two silver hoops in one ear and a calm, self-possessed manner. He does free-lance graphic design (clients include local bands) and lives with his mother and younger brother. And in June 2007, their home was parkour central when PKFR hosted what Obenreder called a "national jam."

click to enlarge Phillips (left), does a spin-move on a tree, while Joe Thompson executes a standing flip. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Phillips (left), does a spin-move on a tree, while Joe Thompson executes a standing flip.

This time a year ago, Obenreder had planned on convening the gathering at a nearby elementary school. But when I arrived, early on a Saturday afternoon, the only person there was his mother, Marcy Eustice, who told me they'd been chased off by the police.

"What were they doing?"

"Well, they were climbing a building."

I found the eight guys sitting beneath the maple tree on Obenreder's front lawn, eating pizza. Out-of-towners included Devin Duval, a recent high school graduate who drove from Norwich, Conn., and Brad Carr, 20, who took the Greyhound from Camden, N.J. After a few minutes, the guys got restless -- a few climbed the tree -- and then they drove to the Oakmont Carnegie Library, on the town's leafy main drag.

Broadly, parkour concerns finding the quickest way to surmount or circumvent the obstacles between two points, the idea being that such skills would be useful in escaping a pursuer. The sport is closely associated with a spin-off called "free-running," which is more about aesthetics -- not just vaulting over the top of the fence, but making a back-flip from it. "Parkour is efficiency, and free-running is freedom," says Obenreder.

In practice, though, the lines are blurrier. Frenchman Sebastién Foucan, for instance, is considered the father of free-running, but his Casino Royale chase consists largely of parkour maneuvers. And many traceurs -- among whom a background in the martial arts is common -- throw in "tricking" maneuvers for fun.

There are between 2,000 and 3,000 active traceurs in the U.S., estimates Mark Toorock, a Washington, D.C., traceur who runs the American Parkour Web site (www.americanparkour.com), the sport's busiest. Most participants are self-taught. Key moves, some familiar from gymnastics, include: the precision jump, from one fixed point to another; the cat leap, a jump to a vertical object in which the feet absorb the impact before the hands grab hold; the kong, a running vault in which the arms are planted and the legs swing directly beneath the body; the tic-tac, a running jump off one object to surmount a higher one; and the forward roll (a safe way to land).

click to enlarge Obenreder finds a new use for a bike rack. - HEATHER MULL

By definition, you can parkour anywhere, even in the woods. Still, traceurs prefer environments that suggest urban obstacle courses in waiting: walls, fences, ledges and railings, in close proximity and of varying heights; big impediments like concrete planters and park benches; and sturdy trees.

Parkour demands no special gear. K-Swiss, the sneaker company, makes a parkour shoe, with a scuff-resistant toe-cap and a smooth sole that won't catch on obstacles. (The company also frequently sponsors parkour events.) But most participants just wear running shoes or cross-trainers, sweats or cargo shorts, maybe wrist sweatbands.

Brief, desultory warm-ups aside, PKFR runs feel like chill sessions that erupt into circus school. Soon after Obenreder and his cohorts reached the red-brick Oakmont library, Brad Carr began vaulting a yard-high wall and forward-rolled away. Obenreder and a few other guys mounted one of the walls that bookend a concrete entrance stairway, then precision-jumped across the 7-foot gap spanning the steps. Carr shimmied up an ornamental lightpost.

Later, everyone migrated around to the library's side, where there's a 7-foot retaining wall. A few took turns running at it, each launching off the vertical face with one foot and attempting an airborne 360-degree spin, in hopes of grabbing the top of the wall and scrambling up over it.

Traceurs like video, which has been the key to the sport's rapid spread: Obenreder usually takes a camera on runs, to post clips online and compile footage for a planned full-length documentary. Repeatedly over the course of the weekend, the jam halted while camera gear was checked. Still, traceurs often exhibit a certain nonchalance, exemplified by Sam Magiske.

A compact 5'4", Magiske seems the best pure athlete of the bunch, ripping off backflips like finger snaps. Asked how he got into parkour, Magiske replied, "Me and Drew just started messing around and stuff, and I just started watching videos and crap."

When Carr tried launching himself (after a running start) off the trunk of a big oak tree to snag a fat branch 12 feet off the ground, the group followed suit. But Magiske came closest. "I just need to empty my pockets and I'll get it," he promised -- and after a few tries, his sandy shag haircut flapping, Magiske snared the branch with one hand and hoisted himself up.

"Jesus hell, Sam," Obenreder marveled, as Magiske squirreled 20 feet higher.

"You are amazing," Duval agreed.

Perhaps because parkour runs are typically small and transient, they only occasionally attract attention from police or security guards. (And smart traceurs ask permission from property-owners whenever possible.) But MySpace pages and Web sites like PKFR's www.pkfrinternational.com are always attracting new traceurs.

click to enlarge Phillips inverts at Frick Fine Arts. - HEATHER MULL

On a chilly Saturday just before last Halloween, Obenreder, Phillips and a 10-year-old traceur named Ormond Quashey were joined by five practitioners they'd never met, at a run Obenreder convened in the broad, brick-paved plaza of Allegheny Center.

The plaza, with its long-inactive fountain, is terraced with shallow concrete stairways, divided by concrete walls, and studded with big, blue planters good for konging. Built in the 1960s and slated for demolition in 2009, the plaza's harsh geometry has earned an unintended second life as a parkour gym du jour.

Rodney Wallace, 31, and Eugene Kuhns, 28, found PKFR online. "I was like, 'We can't be the only two guys in this city, running around like idiots on the weekends,'" explained Wallace, of North Braddock, his long dreadlocks bound in a black headstocking. "Seeing it in person is completely different from watching it online," added Kuhns, of Friendship. "You think, 'Well, it actually is possible.'"

The other newcomers included three students from Pittsburgh Technical Institute, in Oakdale, who'd been practicing since March and showed off their prowess with standing front flips. "We've gone 10 and 12 hours a day before," said Brice Bowman, 18, a PTI programming major.

Parkour invariably draws onlookers, too: Patrons of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh watched bemusedly from behind the museum's glass doors. While traceurs hopped from wall tops and whipped off stunts like Phillips' feet-first, no-hands wall vault, a stocky middle-aged guy took special interest. Eventually, he approached to ask what they were doing.

"Everybody has limbs and stuff. Everybody can move," Obenreder told him. "Everybody can do parkour."

"Looks like a lot of discipline," said the man, adding that he could perform similar feats "when I was lighter." A few minutes later, he lifted his right leg over a low wall, looked around, saw a visitor watching, and dropped it back down.

It wasn't Obenreder's first appearance in Allegheny Center. He and other traceurs have led parkour classes there, as well as at other gyms and youth centers. During the summer, they've taught 40 or more kids in the lunch program at Verona United Presbyterian Church.

"I love working with children. That's one of my passions," says Obenreder, who also volunteers at the church's twice-weekly after-school program.

"He really embodies what I think is beautiful about kids, when they do things themselves," the church's pastor, Don Dilley, says of Obenreder. "It's nice."

In February of this year, PKFR also began staging occasional performances -- tumbling, stunts on portable scaffolding -- before rock and hip-hop shows at Gravity, a roller rink turned music venue in Cheswick. And while parkour can seem dangerous, practitioners stress that with proper training, it's really not. "We play it pretty safe," says Obenreder. "I don't do anything that I know I cannot do."

Even parents of younger traceurs seem fairly secure. "It's a dangerous activity, but kids are kids," says Patricia Tobias, mother of Ormond. "I feel like he'll be safe. He's conscientious in what he does all the time."

click to enlarge Phillips checks out the view from the Carnegie Library's main-branch building, in Oakland. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Phillips checks out the view from the Carnegie Library's main-branch building, in Oakland.

"I'm always nervous because of the risk of getting injured," Obenreder's mom, Marcy Eustice, acknowledges. But she adds, "[Obenreder] acts like a father to a lot of the kids. He pushes them but he really stresses safety."

Yet there is something a little anarchic about the sport, especially in a world of tightly scheduled youth sports leagues. And that is part of parkour's appeal. "You have more of a sense of freedom, not being controlled by anybody else or being told what to do," Obenreder says.

"If you can conquer anything physically, you can do the same thing mentally," he adds. "And the other way: If you can overcome it mentally, you can overcome it physically." Next year, after he graduates high school, he says, he might continue his education in graphic design. Though unsure of the specifics, "I want to do something with art and business -- of course, for PKFR."

"I don't plan on ever stopping," he said one day in May, while walking to the after-school session at Verona United. "Even if I somehow got disabled, I'd still run PKFR." In fact, he's been preparing to host another national jam in Pittsburgh, June 13-15. "People say, 'Oh, you'll grow out of it.' I won't."

Parkour's origins trace back roughly 15 years to David Belle, a young Frenchman who adapted the ideas of famed sports theorist Georges Hébert, who'd developed exercises that became part of French firemen's training and inspired development of an obstacle course called a parcours ("route"). Belle is the son of a fireman lionized for his heroic rescues; in 1997, at age 24 and at the urging of his older brother, also a firefighter, David Belle and some friends dressed as ninjas and, under the name "the Yamakasi," performed an acrobatic routine at a firefighting ceremony. The show was videotaped, and the Yamakasi became famous. They're still revered by traceurs the world over.

Belle is still active, and along with free-running originator Foucan (a childhood friend) he inspired Parkour Generations, a European group that includes members who learned the sport directly from him. This year's Parkour Horizons Memorial Day weekend expo in Columbus marks the first time Parkour Generations has appeared at a U.S. event.

The expo's Friday-afternoon workout is held at a children's playground out in well-mown strip-mall suburbia. The quarter-acre playground, adjacent to a grade school, is mostly weathered wood -- two-story towers, platforms and walkways -- with lots of railings, horizontal metal bars and swaying chain bridges.

Parkour Generations' Kazuma leads a warm-up, and then the 50 participants spread out to jam. Duncan Germain, an atypically stocky, red-haired traceur from North Carolina, grabs a low pull-up bar and starts hoisting himself from a dead hang into a modified, feet-first vault over top; he's been doing parkour for five years, and he coaches others how to distribute their body weight for the jump. A few guys walk a 10-foot-high wooden rail like a balance beam. "Pretend it's a sidewalk and you won't fall," says one.

Traceurs tend to be bright, with the obsessiveness necessary to perfect difficult moves. They wear T-shirts that bear such sayings as "Your obstacle is my playground," and many are agreeably nerdy. One guy, peeking from the window of a high wooden tower, says, "If only I had long hair, somebody could try a rope climb."

They are also eager proselytizers. When some grade-schoolers take recess, and stand passively watching dozens of college boys climbing their monkey bars, one says something about a "ninja warrior." A traceur begins to lecture.

"Everybody can fall," he says, with deadpan irony. "You can jump off a building the same speed everybody else does ... Don't grow up too fast. It's fun to be a kid." As their teacher calls the children away, the traceur adds, "Ask any adult: They'd rather be a kid."

Meanwhile, across the playground, Kazuma performs the first in a series of moves he improvises, like a jazz musician. At 28, he's a little knife-blade of a man, with high cheekbones and, peeking from beneath his sleeveless T-shirt, the scaled wings and tail of a big dragon tattoo. From a standing leap, he seems to float to the 4-foot-high bar, and trapeze-swings to land cat-like on a low platform 6 feet away. A half-dozen guys line up to follow, each of them trying to emulate the moves Kazuma adds to the sequence -- a spinning hop to balance hands-free atop a yard-high bar, another hop to stand on the original bar. But no one can emulate his closer: a cat leap from a metal bar to a steeply angled wooden railing, three inches wide and 6 feet away.

click to enlarge Rails to trails: Thompson makes like a squirrel on a handrail. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Rails to trails: Thompson makes like a squirrel on a handrail.

During a more restful moment of the conference, Kazuma, who has a distant, dreamy air, sits quietly beneath a piece of playground gear; soon, he's just one point on a circle of about 20 traceurs. Someone asks why he does parkour. At first, he says in halting English, it was because "I want to go there ... I want to feel all, I want to touch all." Now, he says with translation assistance from the French by Parkour Generations teammate Johann Vigroux, it "is more for my mind ... to prove [myself] ... to feel confidence."

Kazuma, idly twisting playground woodchips in his fingers, asks why others do it.

"To move forward and to prove that I'm not just stuck somewhere," says Dale McNew, a wiry, goateed machinist from Indiana whose T-shirt reads, "Sometimes I Amaze Myself."

"I started realizing it was something my body wanted," says Francesco G. Caban, a University of Arizona dance student. "It was a good answer, to move this way."

The discussion continues for a while. A few feet away, a curly-haired traceur from New Jersey attempts to parkour into his pants, grasping a chinning bar and swinging toward the polyester sweats feet-first while another guy holds them open, like a potato sack.

"I do it for personal growth," says David Echols, a University of Georgia student. "It lets me go places society won't let me go. ... It's freedom."

"I like," says Kazuma.

Last September, the Columbus Dispatch published a feature story on Parkour Horizons, describing group members who "dangle from stone walls, vault through openings feet first and leap from ledge to ledge." The article stressed the safety precautions members take. But days later, Parkour Horizons, which had recently been granted provisional club status by Ohio State University, received a letter banning it from practicing on campus.

Attaining club status -- which means possible funding, as well as on-campus training privileges -- will require that Parkour Horizons complete a massive "risk-management" form, and probably secure some kind of liability insurance as well, says Lauren Vallee, an OSU Department of Recreational Sports graduate assistant who's been working with the group. Vallee said one obstacle for Parkour Horizons is the lack of a national governing body -- a group that erects standards for athletes to adhere to.

To secure a permit for the weekend training in Battelle Riverfront Park, Parkour Generations' Torchia says, he told the city that his group was conducting "an exercise training session" involving calisthenics, climbing and running. (All participants also signed waivers.) Despite another Dispatch article timed to coincide with the event, the workouts went off without controversy.

Indeed, legitimization is practically the reason for Parkour Horizon's expo weekend in the first place. Somewhat improbably, the group, consisting mostly of college kids, recruited the five international stars of Parkour Generations to help, and to meet with school officials about their club status. (Co-organizer Joseph Torchia won't disclose whether Parkour Generations was compensated, but says the expo cost about $15,000 -- money organizers partly raised through their landscaping business.)

In France and the U.K., parkour is mainstream. A recent gathering in France, featuring the Yamakasi, drew 300, says Parkour Generation's Dan Edwardes, who operates his own parkour training academy. In the U.S., by contrast, there's almost no formal training, and remuneration for athletes is limited to a handful of traceurs performing in commercials and at corporate trade shows.

click to enlarge Flag day: Alex Rodia does Gene Kelly one better on a lamppost. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Flag day: Alex Rodia does Gene Kelly one better on a lamppost.

As the sport grows, that's bound to change. Cities including Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and Denver already host big annual summer jams, as do many smaller ones. But growth is also bound to lead to more conflicts with authority -- and more internal disagreements about the path the sport should take.

The sport's spread by Web video, for instance, is surprisingly controversial, given that the Internet is how many participants learned about it. One concern is that the videos' tendency toward highlight-reel stunts gives the uninitiated a skewed impression.

"Videos are overused and they have been detrimental," Edwardes tells traceurs at an expo roundtable discussion. Video gets people to try stunts their bodies aren't ready for, and the risks don't stop at nasty falls, he adds. The accumulated toll that leaps and landings on concrete takes on joints can cause chronic knee, back and ankle problems. Parkour Generations' priorities include creating international coaching-certification standards.

But another reason to be wary of Web video is philosophical. "What makes parkour is getting together and training together," said Edwardes. "That's what parkour is based on. Not some Web site."

"We really want to dispel this image of crazy people jumping off things," says Parkour Horizons' Nick Kelly, a sophomore engineering major. "It's a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline."

Indeed, for a sport so new, and so infused with a sense of freedom, traceurs often talk about it as if it were a centuries-old martial art. Philosophizing about parkour at the roundtable, for instance, Forrest cites the traceur's motto: "Be strong alone to be useful for others." But he also makes constant references to "the originators," whose names and videotaped moves are familiar to every young traceur.

Not everyone sees the sport that way. "I think of it less as a discipline and more of a physical art," Jereme Sanders, a pony-tailed and especially adept traceur from San Antonio, volunteers during the expo discussion. "I just started forgetting about the movements and just started moving. ... It just made it much more meaningful."

And indeed, one of parkour's biggest challenges lies in attempts to organize it around competitions.

A handful of competitions have been staged internationally already, but many practitioners agree that the events have been problematic -- too stunt-oriented and prone to broken legs. "It shouldn't be competitive," says Parkour Generations' Johann Vigroux. He adds a sentiment frequently voiced by traceurs: "The only competition you should have is against yourself."

Mark Toorock, the Washington, D.C., gym owner who runs the American Parkour site, acknowledges that his desire to create a league places him among "an unpopular minority." But Toorock, who's 37, says a timed event can be devised to showcase real parkour skills, not just big stunts. He understands the resistance among rank-and-file traceurs: "They want to be underground, which is inherent in teen culture." But he thinks the benefits of popularizing the sport outweigh the risks, and that contests can be designed to foster collegiality rather than cutthroat competition.

click to enlarge RENEE ROSENSTEEL

"It's the personalities in the competition that make that happen," Toorock says. "The discipline of parkour should foster people who are better humans."

"If it's gonna be done, it has to be done very carefully," Edwardes cautions. Any competition must go back to the sport's founders. "It has to be brought about by them ... they're the real guardians of the spirit of the art."

At an entrance to Columbus' Battelle Riverfront Park, a sign by a glass-block structure reads "No Climbing on Fountain." But it doesn't say anything about the rest of place, so if you're a traceur this Saturday morning, it's hard not to get excited -- even if you've just driven four hours from Pittsburgh to be here. Drew Obenreder's mom drove him and three others, including a 15-year-old Penn Hills High student named Joe Thompson, Ormond "OQ" Quashey, 11, and Matt Rogowski, 10. They left Pittsburgh at 5 a.m.; now they're in a parkful of traceurs.

After a mass workout that leaves most sweaty and gasping, OQ says he thinks he muscled up pretty well. "I had to get bulky," he tells Obenreder.

"You're getting pretty bulky," Obenreder assures him.

"Naaahh ..."

"No, you're getting pretty buff."

The 130-plus traceurs break into groups by experience level. Matt and OQ are by far the youngest athletes here; along with Obenreder, they're also among the two dozen participants with three years or more of experience. Matt, 4 feet tall, bounds into a drill that involves hopping across the three-foot-wide landscaping terraces. "Look at this little dude, straight konging the gap," one traceur says approvingly.

Another drill is to tightrope-walk a fat, cylindrical metal railing -- on one side of which is a sheer, 12-foot drop to concrete. Roughly every third traceur, legs quaking, can't make it, and simply drops to the pavement ... on the 3-foot side. The railing meets a handrail that angles up two flights to street level; traceurs scale it like squirrels on a tree branch. At the top, a gray-bearded guy, straddling his bicycle, has paused to watch. "You guys are awesome, man," he says. "Don't fall!"

The next challenge is a running leap up that blank 9-foot wall. (It's too tall for Matt and OQ, who switch to a less-experienced group.) Obenreder, his chronic foot pain flaring up, drops out, too. "I'm dying now. I want to do this so bad, too," he says. He shadows the group, impressed by their skill.

PKFR's Joe Thompson, meanwhile, gets more out of his group's morning session. It ends with a brutal, 50-yard, hand-over-hand lateral traversal of a metal fence -- like climbing a sideways ladder, feet braced on a concrete wall below.

"I love challenges," the beginning traceur says afterward. "When I go back to Pittsburgh, I'm going to be able to do this."

 

PKFR USA National Jam Fri., June 13-Sun., June 15. North Side, Verona and other Pittsburgh locations. Free. 412-651-0665 or www.pkfrinternational.com

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