Friday, August 29, 2008

What are they running from?

One of Parkour’s break-out Star’s is a resident of Chicago

It’s Wednesday night in Oz Park and Michael Zernow, who everyone here knows as “Frosti,” is undressed for action. Wearing nothing but a black skull cap, black shorts, and yellow sneakers, he prepares to run a precarious route on, over and around the playlot equipment he is using as an obstacle course.

He stands on a two inch-wide plank and takes a flying leap toward a wooden playset stacked like a castle rampart. His feet land with perfect precision. He then winds in and out of the maze-like grooves in the structure like a centipede trapped in a bath tub. He crawls along the exterior of the playset before taking another flying leap about four feet down. His landing barely makes a squeak. With two giant steps, he runs up a slight ledge and does a side flip in the air.

The run leaves Zernow winded but not spent. His bare torso – inscribed with a tattoo that declares “Change Yourself, Inspire the People, Save the World” – is glistening with sweat. The discipline he has just demonstrated is called Parkour, which in France, where it originated, means the art of displacement.

Parkour, a close cousin to the free wheeling, trick friendly art form, free running, is the art of getting from point A to point B in the quickest manner possible. Typically, that means jumping over, climbing on or flipping off of any obstacle that presents itself. You may have seen a variation of Parkour in the opening sequence of 2006’s Casino Royale. In that movie, Daniel Craig as James Bond chases the creator of free running, Sebastian Foucan, all over town, navigating any dangerous surface—including a construction site girder—that got in his way.
Parkour is one of those Gen Y phenomena that has grown exponentially in the past few years thanks to the constant YouTube hits scored by videos of “traceurs” – as Parkour practitioners are called– racing over urban landscapes.

Frosti, 21, is one of an estimated 40,000 American traceurs. He is also one of the sport’s rising stars. Every Wednesday night around 7 p.m., he and his Parkour pals congregate in Oz Park where they practice precision jumps, cat leaps, and flips. They also talk about their daily lives away from the Chicago Parkour forums that are their primary means of communication. Oz Park is an ideal location for these traceurs because there are so many apparatuses around the place to climb on and over – uneven ledges, benches, wooden railings. It is also Frosti’s domain; he commands the scene like a rock star.

At 5-feet-8 with a sinewy marathon runner’s build, exotic poly-ethnic features and short black hair that he tends to spike in a faux hawk, Frosti has the looks and the moves to stand out in the Parkour crowd. He is known as a daringly acrobatic traceur, with the ability to make moves like a standing backflip look easy. His is definitely one of the most recognizable faces both in and outside of the Parkour community, due not only to his free running prowess but also to his high-profile stint on last season’s Survivor China on CBS. At 20, he was the youngest person ever to appear on the show.

He capitalized on that exposure with gigs performing Parkour in Madonna concerts and in KSwiss commercials as an extra. Many say that if Parkour is going to break out of its Gen Y niche and go mainstream, Frosti, will be its first superstar.

Frosti the Showman

Born and raised in Traverse City, Michigan, Frosti, who’s half Russian and half Japanese, seems to have had the elements of Parkour embedded in his DNA. Both of his parents teach Aikido, and Frosti grew up practicing the martial art all the way through grade school. In his sophomore year of high school, he discovered Parkour when one of his Aikido instructors brought in a tape of Ripley’s Believe it or Not with footage of people doing it. After watching the tape, he traded in his gi for running shoes, “I watched it [the video] and later that day, me and my friend were doing it [Parkour].

He’d always been athletic, though – captain of both the wrestling and track teams at Traverse City’s Central High School. But it was his Parkour skill that helped him pull off a legendary high school stunt.

In his senior year, he scaled the school rooftop dressed as a ninja. With the walkie talkie-toting principal standing in the cafeteria lording over the students all God-like as they ate lunch, he repelled down the side of the building and began flipping around outside the huge cafeteria windows behind the oblivious principal, much to the amusement of the rest of the school. Unfortunately, he was caught by one of the school’s vice-principals who was already outside patrolling the area. “I feel like if I had focused on being a better ninja, I wouldn’t have been caught,” he recalls.

Following high school, he moved to Chicago supposedly to study film at Colombia College, but he admits that it was Chicago’s burgeoning Parkour scene that was the real attraction. Andrew “Ando” Cousins, 25, and his younger brother, Ryan, known as “Cloud,” were helping to establish a thriving Parkour subculture here. Andrew was part of a troupe of traceurs dubbed “The Tribe,” while his younger brother was in a second generation of traceurs called The Alliance. Their videos were appearing all over the internet, attracting the attention of marketers for the likes of Timberland and Unilever

After hooking up with The Tribe, Frosti lost any interest he might have had in making films. Appearing on film had much more appeal, hence his decision to audition for Survivor China. Ask him why he wanted to be on the show and his terse reply (“Shit, why not?”) shows that he’s not a man prone to introspection. Ask him why he thinks he was selected to be one of the 16 contestants on the show and you get a blast of the charm and braggadocio that fuel his popularity. “Why’d I make it onto Survivor China? Because I’m badass, what do you mean why?”

The truth is his audition was a hoot. In one scene, he flips off his covers to show that he’s already dressed and ready for action. The caption on the screen reads: “Fact: FROSTI is the only person ever to win SURVIVOR before the competition began.”

Not everybody loved seeing him slug in out in China, though. During the one month he was there, he received tons of hate mail. Surprisingly, a lot of younger viewers resented him for his youth.

Nor was the experience a run in the park. He lost 20 pounds while out in the woods, and got sick in the jungle. Despite his best efforts to make strategic alliances with his castmates, he was unceremoniously bounced from the show in week nine.
He only has one major complaint, though.

“I’m kind of pissed they didn’t have a challenge that was Parkour related.”

Taking the world by storm

Nobody knows exactly how many traceurs are practicing Parkour around the globe. It’s not exactly an organized enterprise. It’s a pick up and practice sport, requiring no special playing surface or equipment. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so popular – anyone can do it, any time, any where. And it’s definitely not a sport relegated to the western side of the world. It’s popular in Japan and Australia in addition to France and Germany.

Despite the danger inherent in leaping from buildings and balconies, the injuries sustained by traceurs are about the same as those suffered by skateboarders or BMX riders, meaning that sprained ankles and knocked out teeth abound. As haphazard as Parkour may seem, there is a method to the madness. Discipline and precision help reduce the prospect of injury. A traceur’s training is comparable to that of someone participating in the martial arts in that there is a lot of mental preparation involved. Breaking cinder blocks with your bare hands in martial arts, for example, would be similar to leaping a large gap between buildings in Parkour. It’s all mind over matter.

It’s also a highly individual preoccupation. The focus is on individual development rather than competition, meaning the only real failure is personal miscalculation.

David Belle, a Frenchman, is considered by many to be the father of Parkour. He coined the term and helped popularize the sport by uploading countless videos of himself in action on the Internet. And his fans soon followed, posting videos of themselves performing Parkour, mostly set to raucous rock music.

But the development of the art of Parkour predates Belle by several generations. In the early 1900s, a French physical education teacher named Georges Hebert began teaching a technique called the “natural method” to members of the French Navy. It was used to help members of the French military maneuver through natural surroundings. Hebert had observed the movement in Africa where he saw native people navigate through dense vegetation with great agility. Hebert adapted the movement for use to save soldiers and seamen in treacherous environments. The motto he adopted for the training was “be strong to be useful.”

David Belle’s father, Raymond, learned the movement while he was in the French military and passed the techniques on to his son.

In 2004 David Belle appeared in the hit French Film District B-13, jumping off of walls and leaping between chasm-like rooftops. The thrill of seeing Belle fly through the streets of Paris was an inspiration to many potential traceurs, one of them being Washington DC native, Mark Toorock. “When I first saw the movie, I said, I just gotta try this,” Toorock says.

Toorock, who owns a gym in DC called Primal Fitness, is also the primary organizer of Parkour in this country. He founded the American Parkour website and is also the founder of both the Tribe and the Alliance, two groups that feature clusters of ten highly skilled traceurs representing specific regions of the country. Frosti, along with Andrew “Ando” Cousins represent the Tribe in Chicago. Their mission is to teach other traceurs the proper way to practice, such as how to roll out of falls and how to judge what stunts are actually doable—such as jumping in between rooftops or any of the other stunts seen in YouTube videos.

“The one thing I have against the videos,” says Toorock, “is that they don’t distinguish between the people like David Belle, who have been practicing it for years, and some jackass who’s just jumping off his roof for the first time.”

Toorock, though a great force in the field through his marketing of the sport, has actually gotten a bit of flak lately for his support of efforts to turn Parkour into a competitive sport, with tournaments and prize money. Competitions are already sprouting up around the world. They emphasize the stylistic tumbling of free running – Frosti’s speciality – versus the pure adrenaline rush of Parkour.

Many traceurs disdain the effort to create more commercial tournaments for Parkour or free running. They say it contradicts the original purpose of Parkour—to train for the sake of training, and not for the sake of competing.

“Keeping it old-school is kind of okay,” Toorock says, “but I don’t completely agree with that.”
Frosti, whose telegenic style and countenance make him a prime candidate for multi-media Parkour stardom – is curiously ambivalent about the prospect of competition. “There are a lot of positives and negatives to the idea of competition [in Parkour], [but] as far as it’s concerned, I’d rather make sure that it happens right [than not at all].”

The Non-Frosti’s

Back in Oz Park, traceurs like 20-year old, Cody Beltramo, arrive to hang out and master the perfect backflip, which is not necessarily a Parkour technique per se, but a coveted maneuver if it can presented in just the right way.

Standing on a wafer thin piece of wood at the top of a park bench, Cody bends forward before he hurls himself backwards into the air like a gymnast spiraling off of a balance beam. He lands on the wood chips behind him with a loud and uneven thud.

The other park visitors don’t seem to mind the high-flying traceurs. Some even take pictures with their camera phones of Cody, Frosti and the other traceurs flipping and flopping around them in the park.

is Parkour in its purest form –traceurs trying out tricks, urging each other on. It’s not about competition, compensation or Kswiss commercials. For Cody and his ilk, Parkour is just part of their very being.

“After watching a few of the basic techniques, we [my friends and I] went out and tried them, and just kept going with it,” Cody says.

Frosti walks around Oz Park with his hands on his hips. For him Parkour is about more than just fun. It is a sporting life that could make him the Parkour equivalent of Ryan Sheckler, the 19-year-old superstar of the skateboarding world. Fellow Tribe member Andrew “Ando” Cousins sits on the ground and plays Rick Astley’s, “Never Going to Give You Up,” on a small stereo he has sitting by his hip.

The song is very in tune with Frosti’s plans for the future. No matter what direction Parkour takes, he’s never going to give it up.

The crowd of traceurs shimmies back and forth and hefts up their shoulders to the music, singing along to the catchy tune. Frosti just smirks and slides back and forth on his heels along with them. The community is in complete harmony.

Wherever Parkour goes, Frosti’s going to run along with it.


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