The Spiderman Sport

Photograph by Brian Harkin

Few among us can gaze up at a steel city scaffold and say with utter confidence, “I can climb that.” Fewer still can vault from bar to bar, or leap out over open air to land on a wooden railing the width of a strip of duct tape. For parkour athletes, however, this is child’s play. Even if you’ve never heard of parkour – also known as freerunning – its growing popularity in the media means you’ve likely seen it practiced. The ‘Casino Royale‘ remake, for example, featured a 10-minute chase between Daniel Craig and the renowned parkour athlete, Sebastien Foucan, over shanty-town roofs and in and around a construction site.

Developed in central France in the 1990s by David Belle (who you may have seen in these Nike commercials or the ‘District 13‘ series of action movies), parkour was primarily an underground art. Practitioners connected to other disciples only through insular channels and by word-of-mouth. In the past decade, however, the proliferation of homemade movies on the Internet has facilitated a massive global interest in the practice of urban freerunning. Type “parkour” into YouTube and thousands of homemade videos of people performing acrobatic feats in city-spaces are bound to come up. From the streets of Mumbai to the abandoned government buildings of Cairo, practitioners have begun to turn their cities into playgrounds.

From this growing interest, the World Freerunning Parkour Federation (WFPF) was born. Leading the charge of the parkour movement, the WFPF is streamlining the process by which one goes from curious to devoted, by providing a platform for parkour athletes to meet fellow practitioners in their area online. Members of the WFPF range from beginners practicing their first vaults (clean methods to overcome small obstacles) to world-class professionals like Alexander Zyulev, who just won Best Trick in a competition in Santorini, Greece, and Ben Jenkin, currently one of the most physically gifted parkour athletes in the world (watch him perform parkour moves by clicking ‘See More Photos’ above).

For those of us who have never completed a double-kong vault, the WFPF is making teaching available by introducing certification workshops in gymnastics gyms around the country. By empowering the trainers in these facilities with the ability (and insurance policy) to teach parkour, the WFPF is opening up a new realm of athletics that aligns with current fitness trends of cultivating natural athleticism. The explosive plyometrics, balance, and efficiency of movement demanded by parkour helps develop a panther-like physique, building agility and strength equally. “As we get older, the first thing to go is not our ability to have endurance or maximal strength, but to be explosive,” says Gregg Bertsch, a San Diego-based, certified strength and conditioning specialist. “So, one of the big things in strength training now, even with older clients, is to implement safe ways of doing explosive activities.”

Of course, going out and performing a precision jump over a 40-foot gap isn’t the safest way to train your fast-twitch muscle fibers, despite the fact that this type of explosive exercise is really useful for most people. Nonetheless, the WFPF is confident that within gymnastics gyms, and with instructors it has certified, the physical benefits of parkour can be harnessed, and that the certification programs ensure instruction is transmitted safely. “We respect parkour as a self-taught discipline,” says WFPF co-founder Victor Bevine, “but once you start teaching others, you have an added responsibility.” An initial athletic evaluation by the WFPF-certified trainer and a responsible progression from basic moves to more advanced moves helps decrease the likelihood of injury. A padded facility instead of a concrete floor also helps.

We recently took the train out to Five Star Sports Academy in East Rockaway, NY, which, fortunately, did not suffer any damage from Hurricane Sandy, to get a private lesson with parkour star Ben Jenkin. Jenkin, who was recently featured in his own Nike commercial that aired during last summer’s Olympics, gave us the run-down on several of the more basic parkour vaults. He started us off with the basic speed vault – a scissor kick used to clear low obstacles – over a low, padded obstacle (see the gallery above for pictures of this). After quickly learning the speed vault, we moved on to the more impressive Kong, a graceful, chimp-like maneuver in which you plant your hands on the obstruction and quickly swing your legs between and through your arms to move over it. Within 30 minutes, we were easily vaulting over padded obstacles and executing 180 front-flips off the springboard.

If this sounds daunting, don’t worry. Victor Bevine and the others at the WFPF truly believe that parkour can be practiced by almost anyone. “One of our women was 60 and she would come and do vaults,” he says.

The intention of the WFPF isn’t to codify what parkour is – that would be antithetical to parkour’s philosophy of dynamism – but to facilitate its growth and evolution in fresh ways. “Once someone defines what [parkour] is in a neat set of rules, it’s over,” says its mission statement. The WFPF is empowering parkour athletes to take control of that change, and to spread the practice to anyone who wants to learn. Its motto? “Know obstacles, know freedom.” []

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