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Jump First, Ask Questions Later

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Mark Toorock was a self-described 'spaz' when he was growing up. But the D.C. resident has since learned to transform his energy into a passion for practicing and teaching Parkour, a radical French sport that features acrobatic leaps, jumps and vaults as a means of overcoming obstacles in an urban landscape.Video by Ben de la Cruz and Kat Keene Hogue/washingtonpost.comJump First, Ask Questions Later (Post Magazine, Jan. 13, 2008)

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"For me, parkour is getting into that state of mind where your instincts take over," Mederos says, "where there are no obstacles, just movements to be made."

Mederos is a leader of Gymnasty, the parkour and freerunning club at Virginia Tech, which includes members of the school's gymnastics and track and field teams, along with a wide range of students with varying abilities. Mederos says Gymnasty and events such as the parkour jams provide a valuable social component to parkour. Still, he says, he sees parkour as primarily a solitary, meditative and personal activity.

"You can look at videos online, but it doesn't really give you the full sense of what different people are doing or how they might help or influence you," he says. "To be honest, though, mostly I'd rather just go off and explore [alone]."

At the end of the summer, Mederos and many of the same folks who converged upon Washington for the (B)east Coast Jam find their way to Colorado for a National Parkour Jam hosted by Tribe member Ryan Ford. Inspired by Toorock's work at Primal Fitness, Ford now leads parkour classes at the Spot gym in Boulder and makes parkour presentations in high schools around Colorado.

The D.C. contingent, including Toorock and Billy Hughes, immediately notices a regional difference in the way Ford and other Coloradoans practice parkour: Natural elements are used as freely as urban obstacles, and the Colorado traceurs appear to have more experience as rock and tree climbers. Suddenly, trees and rocks become fair game in the parkour landscape, and the usable environment expands exponentially.

The line between natural and manmade obstacles is blurred further when the jam makes its way to Denver's Skyline Park. The Modernist masterpiece designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin in the early 1970s looks for all the world like a custom-designed parkour training facility, and Ford leads the way, leaping around on the park's tiered monolithic rock faces and water-falls. Soon enough, the rest of the traceurs are following suit. As if to smash Mederos's vision of parkour as a quiet Zen activity, an incident later that day on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder brings the inherent risks of climbing and jumping around on urban architecture back to reality when Anthony Spoon, a traceur from Arizona, puts his hand through a plate of tinted glass. Following the lead of other traceurs at the jam, Spoon wedges himself between two adjacent walls, pushes against one wall with his hands and against the other with his feet, then "stem" climbs horizontally along the designated route. The route's leaders carefully plant their hands on the sturdy window framing along one wall as they move along sideways; Spoon misjudges, sending broken glass cascading down a stairwell on the other side of the window, and falls about eight feet to the ground. The other traceurs abruptly halt their climbing and jump down to see if he is okay.

Toorock and event organizer Ford take charge, administering first aid and calling 911. As they wait for the ambulance, Spoon, holding his arm in a tightly wrapped bloody T-shirt that a fellow traceur has offered as a temporary bandage, says, "This isn't the image we want for parkour." That sentiment is later echoed by his peers.

When the paramedics arrive, they examine Spoon and tell him it looks like he has cut a tendon in his wrist. Then they drive him to the hospital. He is later flown home to Phoenix for surgery.

After the group moves on to climb a nearby university parking structure, a campus police officer is left looking up at the broken window in bewilderment.

Spoon was lucky, says Toorock: With just a little bit more pressure in the wrong direction, he could have plummeted down the stairwell, along the same trajectory as the shattered glass. (The event's organizers take up a collection to replace the broken window.) Toorock knows it wouldn't take many similar incidents before people started trying to ban parkour in the same ways they have tried to curb skateboarders and extreme sports, and he feels personally responsible for protecting the sport's reputation. He wants to see the growing legions of traceurs leave no trace of their activities, and broken windows aren't in his plan. More important, he is trying to promote these daredevil activities, in which the traceurs do not wear any safety gear, as essentially safe. In his worst nightmares, he says, people get hurt or even killed by trying to imitate things they see in parkour videos without any of the necessary preparation and physical training, the way copycats of the MTV stunt show "Jackass" did a few years ago. Toorock says injuries in parkour are rare because participants rely not on what they can't control -- wheels or the icy surfaces of snowboarding and skiing -- but their own hands and feet.

"It's really hard to get people to report these kinds of injuries," says Lanier Johnson, executive director of the American Sports Medicine Institute. "We have not seen any injuries from parkour or freerunning that I know of. It's not even something that has come to our attention at this point."

AT THE NINTH ANNUAL NEW YORKER FESTIVAL IN MANHATTAN IN OCTOBER, Toorock is brought in to consult on the set design that his hero Belle is using for a performance. Belle was featured in a New Yorker profile by Alec Wilkinson last April, and he joins a festival bill of authors, musicians and artists pulled from the pages of the magazine. Toorock, the Tribe members and other traceurs from around the country are also invited to train with Belle and participate in the demonstration at the towering Javits Center fountains sometimes referred to as Stonehenge Park. Belle leads the other traceurs through a series of warm-ups and training exercises, then looks on approvingly as Toorock and the rest of the group showcase this first wave of parkour in America.

Toorock's design contributions include two wooden vault boxes and an elevated stage with steps and railings, but Belle has his eye on the fountains themselves: four towers that Toorock says look like a blank canvas to an accomplished traceur. After a quick survey of his surroundings, Belle begins to climb.

"The difference between what David Belle is doing and what anybody else is doing is like the difference between a planet and a marble," says Toorock. "He just ran up those towers like they were steps. You see him run, and climb, and jump, and hang, and pull himself up, and he's just up there in a flash, not even seconds. Then he does a huge precision jump over a gap between towers, climbs partway down the next tower, drops 12 feet to the ground, pops up, springs up to a five-foot-high platform, does a beautiful back flip . . . and then turns and smiles with a slight nod. It was over in an instant, but it was more than anybody could have asked for."

Colin Bane covers skateboarding and other action sports as a freelance writer and participated in the six-week parkour boot camp at Primal Fitness during research for this article. He can be reached at cjbane@gmail.com.


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