Parkour’s Unseen Leaps of Faith

A voice calls out, “Scott, are you doing something stupid?” He bashfully responds, “…Yeah.” In the damp chill of a rainy, late summer evening at UMass Amherst, the lean college senior bolts towards two picnic tables laid end-to-end, and leaps.

Extending his arms, he plants them upon the end of the first table and swings his body forward, propelling him to the next table. Quickly replacing his arms upon the second table, he vaults forward again- but not smoothly enough- so his body slips sideways into the air past the table.

In an almost Looney Tunes fashion, he seems to pause in mid-air, looks down, and realizes he is about to fall.  He then dexterously turns his body just enough fall safely into a roll. Cats don’t look this good. But not easily deterred by the slip-up, Scott Maxson pats the soggy dirt from his grey sweatpants and prepares to try it again.

He does it not for the crowd, not for any tangible reward, but for the self-satisfaction of accomplishing the challenge. This is parkour.

Based off of a French naval officer’s experience with African tribes honed to acrobatic perfection without the aid of any guidance from a gymnast or similar tutor, parkour has currently evolved into a sort of urban ballet for recreational and harcore connoisseurs alike. However, this is not all that parkour stands for. While the physical aspect unarguably exists, it is more like a facet of the overall betterment of one’s self.

Scott Maxson reaching a 11.5ft wall behind Berkshire Dining Hall

Performed all across the world, parkour finds itself a small, but devout, community at UMass Amherst’s official Parkour Club. A registered student organization (RSO) since 2008, the Parkour Club doesn’t tout the highest enrollment, but their passion can be compared to that of any football or baseball team. Javier King, a physics major, said, “One of the first thoughts upon getting that acceptance letter [to UMass] was, ‘I wonder if they have a parkour club?'”

Scott Maxson sprinting to Southwest Residential Area

Scott Maxson is one of the leaders of the Parkour Club, and a member for over two years. He mentioned the benefits of being a traceur,  saying, “Improvements in parkour lead me to improvements in my everyday life.” Maxson, a biology major in his senior year, wants to show people to think and live outside of the average means put forth by modern schools and society, saying, “They just show you a part of something, I want to show you the whole of something.”

For some traceurs, they may simply enjoy the physical nature of the discipline, and that isn’t necessarily right nor wrong. For others, it is a means of physical and mental growth, a means to enhance their usefulness to both themselves and those around them. This sort of personal altruism is one of the tenets of Georges Hébert, the French naval officer who gave the preexisting ideas and actions of parkour its namesake, saying, “Être fort pour être utile” or, “Being strong to be useful.”

However, it must be added that one important facet of parkour is that each person’s experiences, and by extension- skills, are unique, and therefore unfair to compare to another person’s skills or shortcomings. This is one significant reason that parkour is not supported as a competitive sport by its founders and many participants. It isn’t about how you compare to someone else, because that’s not important to being a traceur.

Javier King behind Berkshire Dining Hall

Recently, however, several corporations have attempted to broaden public awareness of parkour (or arguably profit from them), such as Red Bull’s “Art of Motion” series, or MTV’s “Ultimate Parkour Challenge.”

It isn’t the goal for most of the traceurs at UMass to make it onto any of these programs, as some of the participants are merely striving to have the confidence  to call themselves traceurs in the first place. Javier King, a physics major at UMass, wouldn’t call himself a traceur, though he said he feels he is there, “psychologically, not physically.” About his performance, King said, “I’m able to see the moves, but I’m not able to do them.”

Some traceurs just have off nights. During one training session, at least three people sat out after hitting their knees during a vault, and King aggravated a previous (parkour-related) heel injury. “I hate hurt,” said King about his heel, jokingly. Even while their legs hurt, the inured traceurs compensated by doing exercises and tasks with their arms, just so they could keep moving and keep active whilst the others leapt and vaulted.

If anything, participating in parkour apparently can also give tracuers something to talk about if their majors aren’t normally seen as the most exciting. Kevin Barba, a computer science and math major, said, “If I go to parties and someone asks me what major I am ‘Oh, computer science and math,’ they’ll go, ‘Oh..really..,’ and I have to say, ‘Wait! Don’t go, I do normal things, too!” He laughed and continued on to say, “Parkour is something that lets me go out and be active after sitting in front of a computer all day, because I know other comp. sci. majors that work all day in front of a computer, then go home and sit in front of a computer. I just can’t do it.”

Kevin Barba transitioning from bar to ledge

Maxson actually intends to make parkour his life’s work. Disenfranchised with school, he said, “Just up until Junior year, I still wanted to go into med school.” One reason for the change, he said was, “Why think about microbiology when I could be thinking about bettering the people around me?” So instead, he now wishes to open up a sort of “Parkour monastery.” “Something off-grid,” he said, “totally self-reliant.”

Whether a traceur wishes to learn efficient movement, show off for their friends, defeat insecurities, or like in Maxson’s case, make parkour their life’s goal, it is impossible not to say that parkour changes the person in some way. Casting off the reins of society may not be for all up-and-coming traceurs, nor may it be the choice for seasoned veterans of the practice. However, parkour gives each traceur the tools to make these sort of decisions on their own.

Jordan Medeiros catching a ledge near Hampshire Dining Hall

To an outsider looking in, parkour may just seem like vaulting tables and scaling walls, and in a way, they’re not wrong, yet at the same time, they’re only seeing the barest tip of what the profession has to offer.

A landed vault can be a traceur’s aced exam; a clean wall-run can be their well-hit high note. Parkour embraces lateral thinking- what can be the best way to approach any given situation in the most practical way? Be it a 11.5ft wall, a midterm exam, or an on-coming car, it allows solutions and perspectives otherwise impossible to others.

Perhaps then, with that in mind, we could all use a good vault or two once in a while. ###

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