Ezy Reading: Rolling With The Traceurs

Evan Kanarakis

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in Portland, Maine when I overheard an Australian accent at a nearby table talking about ‘having another look over the campus blueprints so we can really get our money’s worth’. At a rather sensitive time in America for anything concerning university campuses paired with semi-suspicious conversations it piqued my interest, but I’d already been planning on interrupting them when the gent had moments earlier asserted that ‘I bet twenty bucks I won’t ever hear another Australian accent in these parts, that’s for sure.’ Hey, a struggling writer will do almost anything if it helps to make ends meet (N.B- almost anything), so I put down my newspaper, turned around, and introduced myself with ‘I believe you owe me twenty bucks’.

Much to my relief, these two co-conspirators weren’t up to any criminal mischief –well, not serious criminal mischief, at any rate- and were in fact merely parkour enthusiasts visiting from New York. For the uninitiated, the website www.parkour.net defines parkour as:

‘… An art to help you pass any obstacle; to go from point A to point B using only the possibilities of the human body. This art originated with French soldiers in Vietnam and was developed by David Belle, inspired by his father.’

The site adds that the distinction between parkour and general acrobatics or physical tricks is that parkour, borne from devising strategies in which to rescue someone quickly in an emergency situation is useful, whereas acrobatics and tricks are not. Put simply, parkour is a pretty amazing activity to behold, wherein participants (known as traceurs if male, or traceueses if female) can negotiate their way with ease and at pace through urban or rural obstacles alike. Still sound confusing? Though this particular example is considered an altogether different discipline known as ‘free running’, check out the opening construction-site chase sequence in 2007’s Bond flick Casino Royale and you’ll get closer to what parkour is all about.

‘Matt’, originally from Sydney, and ‘Cam’, originally from California, were both students at NYU and had been involved in parkour for three years, having joined the art form (they were quick to point out that parkour should never be considered a ‘sport’, especially because in true spirit it is deemed to be ‘competition free’) after extended experience in indoor rock-climbing and gymnastics respectively. It’s little wonder, really, because parkour incorporates so many of the skill-sets you might find in these latter two sports, especially in terms of conserving output by utilizing the least amount of energy per manoeuvre. At the same time, there’s a kind of fluidity in parkour and focus on continuous movement that goes beyond gymnastics to what you might identify in certain martial arts. Even further, it seems many of the more committed traceurs around adhere to a ‘my body is an absolute temple’ philosophy, training regularly, eating well, avoiding toxins of any kind (I noticed that Matt and Cam were both drinking decaf, for instance!) and this certainly separates parkour from the kind of identity and character traits you recognize in more clearly categorized ‘extreme’ sports like skateboarding and BMX.

Still, there is something of an extreme aspect to parkour -the kind that suggests it is with good reason that most participants generally try to maintain peak physical fitness by training regularly- and that lies in the obvious dangers involved in making at-pace leaps and tumbles over ten foot concrete walls, spiked-railing stairwells and through thorny, jagged forests. It’s for the same reason that Matt and Cam asked I not use their real names and surnames in this piece –liability risks across most European and U.S college campuses where parkour is most commonly practiced have meant the activity is generally banned, and similarly many local councils prefer, as with skateboarders, that participants keep out of public parks and through-ways. Parkour continues to grow worldwide, however (it was featured in an issue of TIME magazine just last April), and dozens of campus and town maps with hot tips on the most ideal locations for the activity can be found with a simple online search.

Which brings us to the blueprints my new friends were secretly chatting about when I first rudely listened in on their conversation, and which was why they’d come to Maine after all- to test out new parkour sites. Not wishing to hold them up any further I soon found myself excitedly joining the duo on a semi-covert mission into a local Portland area campus to watch them take part in a solid hour of parkour madness. It really was one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in a while, and I’m sure the fact they were accomplished in the field and not beginners helped benefit the demonstration, because they consistently pulled off some of the most spectacular cat leaps, barrel rolls and vaults without the slightest hesitation or hint of fear and without incurring any injuries.

Were I ten years younger, far more disciplined and not so attached to the occasional drinking session I’d give parkour a try, but these aching knees and ankles already invested half my lifetime in pursuits like basketball and rugby, and I’m no longer equipped to take on the new skill-sets required for this activity. No, for now, I’m content to be merely an observer to this fascinating, ever-expanding art form, and I’ve already passed on to Matt and Cam my scouting reports for parkour locales to test out in the Downeast region of Maine, something they plan on doing once summer well and truly rolls around.

And, to Matt’s credit –and kind insistence- I ended up scoring $20 out of my first introduction to the world of parkour. Us Aussies are everywhere.

Learn about parkour in New England at www.neparkour.com

Ezy Reading is out ever so frequently…