A group of eight to 10 students congregates in front of the School of Dentistry’s Kellogg Building on a bright Tuesday afternoon. Some of the guys (though a lone female will join them later in the day) wear tennis shoes, others are barefoot. They are all wearing baggy sweats, and though they may seem like just another group of students exercising outside and enjoying the warm weather, it soon becomes obvious that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill conditioning session. This is parkour.

Paul Sherman/Daily
Paul Sherman/Daily

They begin with a warmup, following the leader of the club, LSA sophomore Sanda Mong, as he races around the building. Mong breaks up the cardio with various other exercises, including body props, in which they put their feet on a wall and their hands on the ground, resembling a pushup, and then use their arms to “walk” a set distance across the wall. The team stretches, and the warm-up is over. It’s time for the real fun to begin.

Universal movement

Though parkour is widely considered an extreme sport by those unfamiliar with it, there is no general consensus on exactly how to classify it: sport, discipline, philosophy, the list goes on.

TJ McKenzie, a parkour instructor who helps run Mymichiganparkour.com, said the Michigan Parkour & Freerunning Association defines the activity as the physical discipline of training to overcome obstacles while adapting to the environment.

“Parkour focuses on viewing the environment differently, seeing a path not typically traveled, and traversing through your environment, from point A to point B, as quickly and efficiently as possible,” McKenzie said.

Engineering junior Andrew Schumacher, a member of the University’s parkour club, described parkour as the art of movement, but added that it can mean different things to different people.

“For me, it’s seeing your surroundings in a different way (and) being able to focus in a different way, not on academics or anything like that,” Schumacher said. “It’s physical, and you can kind of push yourself to do things a little further than you thought you could.”

But the exact definition of parkour isn’t the only element of the activity up for debate. Who exactly founded parkour and when the practice arose are shrouded in mystery. Because parkour combines elements from so many different disciplines and inspirations, it’s nearly impossible to determine where it originated.

While parkour’s ancient origins are questionable, most people consider David Belle and eight other men from France, known as the Yamakasi, as its modern-day founders.

LSA senior William Leaf, a leader of the University’s club along with Mong, said the beginnings of the art can’t be pinpointed because people have always, in some way, been involved in the activity.

“There’s a famous guy, Ryan Doyle, who said that when people asked him when he started doing parkour, he said he never stopped,” Leaf said. “And he asked them back, ‘When did you stop doing parkour?’ When you look at little kids, everybody’s always jumping around on walls and things like that. That’s definitely true for me too. I was always playing around as a kid.”

Regardless of where or when it originated, the enthusiasm and tenacity displayed by the University’s parkour team as they glide effortlessly over the walls in front of the Kellogg Building indicate that parkour is a part of current campus life.

From point A to point B

After the warmup, the club members begin to work on various techniques. Normal activities include vaulting, rolling, wall runs and cat leaps. The club starts with wall runs, which involve propelling forward off a wall or other structures, using that momentum to climb easily up and over a small obstacle. Some members of the club struggle to grab hold of the wall, while others, such as Mong and Leaf, easily scale the wall and then assist the less-experienced members.

After a few trials, the members work on individual exercises. Schumacher, who begins practicing vaults with a few of the other traceurs, explained that there are many different variations of even this one move.

“Safety and speed vaults are pretty similar. You have one hand down and your feet are off to the side,” Schumacher said. “With a safety vault, you step on top of whatever you’re going over, be it a rail or a wall. In a speed vault both of your legs just fly over.

“In a Kong, you jump and place both hands on the wall and kick your feet through,” he continued. “In a dash vault, you jump feet-first over and then just kind of push yourself back up with your hands.”

After an hour or so, the club members decide to move to a new venue: the Biomedical Science Research Building. Mong explained that the club likes to switch up its surroundings. The BSRB building offers a greater variety of props that the team can utilize.

“You can really tell a good parkour area if it has a lot of walls and elevation,” he said. “I guess it’s kind of an experience thing. The more you do parkour, the more you can see things and what you can do.”

When the club reaches its new destination, Mong demonstrates a series of circuits the rest of the club then mimics, instituting different rules for each round. In one particularly daunting circuit, the participants’ feet must never touch the ground, forcing them to continuously climb over and dive onto rails, walls and ledges.

These circuits help the members prepare for parkour jams, noncompetitive gatherings where parkour clubs from all over the country gather to work on moves together. Mong said he is planning on traveling to Kalamazoo in a few weeks to participate in a jam and to prepare for the upcoming Ann Arbor jam.

“(You) just show off (your) moves, watch people do moves, make friends, all that,” he said. “We have our own jam too, in September. We usually get around 50 to 80 people, and it’s a lot of fun.”

As the traceurs race around the building, cat jump over various walls and structures and shimmy down handrails, their eyes glimmer with a distinct satisfaction and unmistakable appreciation for the activity they have undertaken. Though scaling walls and dive-rolling onto concrete may not appeal to some people, it’s obvious that these University students enjoy their unconventional workout.

“We don’t like being normal, do we?” Schumacher jokes.

In the public eye

Parkour has received more and more attention in recent years thanks to popular movies such as “Casino Royale” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” But the acts depicted in the movies can’t be strictly defined as parkour, at least according to the University’s club members and the Michigan Parkour & Freerunning Association.

Mong said the majority of students only have knowledge of parkour from an episode of the NBC sitcom “The Office,” but he explained that Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute’s antics, while funny, are a false depiction of the activity.

“(The episode) just kind of treats parkour like it’s a joke, like it’s just what kids do. But there’s really a philosophy behind it. There’s a discipline behind it,” Mong said. “When people join karate, it’s not like people think it’s a joke or anything. It’s something for real. And some people just don’t take (parkour) seriously.”

While parkour is its own distinct activity, it is similar to freerunning. McKenzie explained that while the public may believe that freerunning and parkour are interchangeable, they are very different.

“Freerunning … allows the freedom to sacrifice some efficiency for freedom of movement and self-expression by adding some tricks such as flips and spins,” McKenzie said. “Essentially, for many people, freerunning is more ‘flashy’ and fun to watch.”

Mong mentioned that parkour is strictly for practicing efficiency while freerunning allows room for creativity.

“I like to make the analogy of parkour like an obstacle course and freerunning like a playground,” Mong said. “But a lot of the movements are so similar that a lot of the people just do both.”

McKenzie noted that another misconception about parkour is the association made between disciplined practitioners and young “hooligans” being destructive.

“As an association, we stress our ethics and community pledges to each and every one of our members,” he said. “We train hard in our community and want to show it the respect it has shown us.”

Mong explained that when a parkour club first came about, the issue of being viewed as just “reckless kids” by the University was a serious concern.

“I know with the DPS, we kind of have a relationship, we can train in some areas and they’re fine with it,” he said. “When the club was established, we explained to them that we’re not just a bunch of reckless kids.”

DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown confirmed that there is an understanding with the club about certain rules and regulations.

“Some of the activities would tend to alarm people,” Brown said. “Their intent is not to damage property or anything like that, but other people might not know that.”

Mind, body, spirit

As the practice begins to wrap up, the club members once again undertake individual activities. Some climb trees, doing crunches while hanging upside-down from the branches, and others, such as Washtenaw Community College student Ivan Dmitrieuich Prokopouich, begin to flip and somersault off of ledges.

Prokopouich, who is studying abroad in the U.S. from Russia, said he trains extensively in his home country, sometimes for as many as eight hours a day. He practices “true parkour,” a slight variation on the normal activity in that it is, for him, a way of life.

“You find an obstacle that you can overcome, you overcome it, then you choose another level,” Prokopouich said. “You can overcome any obstacle, like arguing with a guy, or be confident in yourself, or it can be anything.”

He explained that what or how you do parkour counts less than what you think and feel as you’re doing it.

“You feel sometimes like a bird, sometimes like a tiger,” he said. “You feel like an animal, really free, and it’s an amazing feeling.

“You need to see freedom in your mind, and liberty and infinity, something like that.”

Many of the other club members said they started practicing parkour as a fun way to stay in shape. Schumacher, who has previously participated in martial arts and gymnastics, said parkour was an easy way for him to exercise in college.

“It’s just a way to kind of improve technique and keep my physical conditioning up,” he said. “This is my favorite aspect of martial arts, the agility stuff. So it’s just fun to me.”

LSA freshman Nick Barden also said he joined the club for the physical benefits.

“I did sports in high school (but) I wasn’t good enough to play sports here, and I wanted to stay in shape,” Barden said. “I love (parkour), it’s a lot of fun”

Though the fitness perks can’t be denied, McKenzie, like Prokopouich, said parkour isn’t just practiced to stay in shape.

“Some people see it as a way to cleanse their minds from typical everyday stress, similar to yoga or meditation,” McKenzie said.

Adam Dunlap, an employee at Take Flight Apparel, which produces parkour-specific clothing and gear, also mentioned that the activity can benefit a practitioner’s mental health.

“Practicing parkour helps develop and maintain the physical condition while pushing the mental side of practitioners,” Dunlap wrote in an e-mail. “They analyze problems and overcome obstacles. It also forces practitioners to confront fears, both rational and irrational.”

Just be careful

Watching the club practice, it’s hard not to wonder whether or not any of the members have ever been seriously injured attempting the techniques.

Surprisingly, Mong said that injuries are few and far between.

“Parkour is extremely incremental,” he said. “It’s usually pretty calm, and the reckless people will quit when they get hurt. We try to limit our risks as much as possible. You know, we’re not going to ask you to jump off a building.”

Prokopouich said he has never been seriously injured and doesn’t imagine he ever will be.

“I’ve never broken (my) legs or neck or something like that because of my … method of training,” he said. “You don’t have to hurry up, so you don’t have injuries. You just don’t compete with others.”

With that, he turns and leaps over a wall, landing on a concrete ledge behind it. As the other members take a break from their activities to observe, Prokopouich turns and dives off of the ledge, effortlessly transitioning from a terrifying headfirst plunge into a graceful roll as he reaches the ground. And in one fluid motion he is on his feet again, completely nonplussed as passers-by gawk.

As others join Prokopouich on the ledge to attempt the amazing stunt, Mong offers some final words of wisdom to the club members:

“Watch out for people … and don’t die!”

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