Chris Gardner  /  AP
Sam Slater is shilouetted as he plays parkour, a French-born extreme sport, over a cement wall at a parking garage in Rockville, Md., on Dec. 11.
updated 12/28/2004 12:58:06 PM ET 2004-12-28T17:58:06

To devotees of a French-born extreme sport known as parkour, that park bench you jog past every day is much more than just a seat.

It can be an impromptu hurdle or pommel horse. The sport, which resembles gymnastics without the gym, or skateboarding without a skateboard, depends as much on your view of the world around you as your skill in negotiating the terrain.

The name means obstacle course in French and the goal of the sport’s traceurs, also known as freerunners, is to run, jump, vault or climb over obstacles in the most fluid manner possible.

“A lot of people call it urban gymnastics, but there’s more of an art to it. You use the landscape around you to try to create movement, to flow across the landscape,” said Sam Slater, 20, of Glen Burnie, a junior at McDaniel College in Westminster.

“You’re trying to continuously keep moving. You practice a lot of different movements while you’re jogging from Point A to Point B. You’re not hindered by walls or anything that comes up.”

Illustrating the point while casually jogging across campus, fellow student Brian Belida leaps, arms outstretched in front of him. His hands land on a low wall running along a path above a small drop. He pulls his legs through his arms, dropping onto his feet a few feet below.

“As long as you’re getting over the object, it doesn’t matter what you do,” said Belida, 20, a junior from Rockville.

No equipment required
Stairs? Why climb?

Try the two approach, not from the front, but from the side, grabbing the rail and flipping over the top.

Chris Gardner  /  AP
Leon Mederos, 16, of Alexandria, Va., flips over after running up a wall as he and others play parkour at the Metro station in Rockville, Md.
The Web site for Urban Freeflow, a group dedicated to the emerging sport, calls it the “closest you can get to the Matrix, Spiderman and Hong Kong martial arts movies in the sense of movement, but without the need for special FX or wires.”

“It’s different thinking. You just never think, ‘Hey, I can do that’ — but you can,” said Mark Toorock of Urban Freeflow. “The guys who do it well, they make it look easy.”

Belida said he used to inline skate but became interested in parkour after he and Slater saw a story on television and downloaded videos of various moves. He now prefers parkour because it does not require any equipment.

The two are now the most devoted of a group of about a half dozen at the school.

“Colleges are really good places. They have excellent architecture. Everything is made for walking — pathways, steps and ledges and different cool architecture,” Belida said.

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The sport also doesn’t leave marks on pavement, benches and rails, as skateboarding and inline skating can, he said.

The group wrote a letter explaining the sport to the college’s campus safety department and have been well accepted, they say.

Slater scraped his shin recently, requiring a few stitches, but aside from that, he said there have been no major injuries.

Members like to go out several times a week for 20 minutes or a half hour around campus and sometimes attend larger weekend gatherings, called jams.

Spreading internationally
Freerunners use movements such as the kong vault, or cat-pass, skipping over an object by passing your feet between your hands and underneath your body. Then there’s the tic-tac, a quick one-footed step over an object. Walls are scaled, often with a quick run-up, and then jumped over.

While leaps from heights are part of parkour, traceurs try to land softly, or land and roll to dissipate the energy of the fall. The ideal approach is to be like water flowing down a stream. When it meets a boulder, it flows around it and continues on, according to the Urban Freeflow site.

Since its inception in 1987, it has spread internationally, with groups in Brazil, Britain, Canada, Sweden and the United States.

Aficionados have a different view on their environment, according to Sebastien Foucan, who is acknowledged as one of the founders of the movement, along with David Belle. Practicing parkour is to “discover the forests from top to bottom” and explore the “unlimited diversity of the spaces that are offered to us,” Foucan wrote on another Web site devoted to the sport.

Toorock, 34, of Berkeley Heights, N.J., estimates there are 1,000 freerunners in the United States, including more than 600 registered on his Web site. California has the most, followed by New York and Massachusetts, with a large contingent in Maryland and Virginia.

Homer Azari, 19, a student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said as many as 10 freerunners practice in his group. Also a boxer and a runner, Azari said he likes the freedom of parkour.

“Other sports have these rules that inhibit you. This one you’re only bounded by your surrounding,” he said.

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