By Kate Brumback
With adrenaline coursing through his veins and a voice in his head screaming, “Don’t do it!” Matthew Willis runs toward a solid 4 1/2 foot high concrete wall on a bridge. He jumps at the last second and vaults over, only to fall 17 feet. Rolling on the ground upon impact, he springs up unharmed.
Willis is neither a superhero chasing a bad guy nor a felon running from the police. He is one of a growing number of people—mostly young men in their teens and early twenties—who are hooked on ‘parkour,’ a physical and mental athletic discipline that is spreading rapidly throughout the United States.
To the uninitiated, parkour (pronounced par-CORE) may look like an extreme sport—like gymnastics without the gym equipment, or skateboarding without the board. But its founders and followers say it’s the opposite of childish daredevilry. It’s about finding efficient ways to get from point A to point B by running, jumping and climbing over obstacles, using uninterrupted, fluid motion. It takes mental control as well as physical strength and exertion, enthusiasts say. For many devotees in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and throughout the Southwest, parkour is becoming a way of life.
Caleb Anderson, 18, a high school senior in Tucson, Ariz., regularly incorporates leaps across gaps and drops of up to 10 feet into his parkour routines on the campus of the University of Arizona. “It’s kind of a mind over matter thing,” he said. “You just have to shut your mind off and do it.”
The urge to move in this way “is something that’s in us all, as humans,” said Robert “Hangman” McGowan, 25, who runs parkour workshops in a gym in Brooklyn with his friend, Exo Sia. The two also established the Web site nyparkour.com. Enthusiasts use “natural movements,” McGowan said, “but we just take them to new heights.”
Popular in Europe for more than five years, parkour is spreading throughout the United States as enthusiasts find each other through message boards on Web sites like americanparkour.com and urbanfreeflow.com. Urban landscapes like city parks and university campuses provide ideal parkour courses, with railings, sets of stairs, walls and drops.
The name comes from the French word “parcours” and refers to the rigorous obstacle courses used in French military training. David Belle and his childhood friend Sebastien Foucan were teenagers in the suburbs of Paris when they developed the discipline and gave it a name in the early 1990s. Belle was influenced by his father, a career soldier, and by watching martial arts films.
Many “traceurs,” as practitioners are called, say they have been unknowingly practicing parkour since they were kids—running, climbing and jumping over obstacles. Willis, 21, a college senior in Texas, said he had an epiphany when he saw “Jump London,” a 2003 documentary on parkour. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing,’” Willis said.
By incorporating the philosophy of parkour into his regular routine—always seeking out obstacles and considering how he moves through his environment—Willis said he has become physically and mentally more able to accomplish difficult maneuvers.
Parkour is popular enough to have developed an offshoot, called freerunning, or freestyle parkour. “In freerunning you have the same movements but with flips and more challenging moves,” explained Andy Causley, 23, who has a gymnastics background. Causley co-founded Tempest Freerunning last year as a senior at Virginia Tech.
Still, some traceurs fear that as the discipline spreads beyond its core of serious devotees, new practitioners will dilute its essence and alter its meaning by attempting superfluous, hotdog stunts.
More than once, Cousins said, kids have asked him if he can jump from one rooftop to another. “Yeah, I can,” he said. “But that’s not what parkour is about.”