Mn Parkour turns Twin Cities into obstacle course
A young man stands on a 10-foot concrete wall, staring at the imposing drop to the concrete below. The buzz begins to build as more passersby join the crowd, curious as to what type of spectacle is about to take place.
"Is that guy going to jump off?" one little boy asks his dad as they stop to watch the scene unfold at Minneapolis's Peavey Plaza.
A few feet away three teenage girls stare silently—one grabs her camera phone to capture whatever is about to happen. While no one is saying it out loud, everyone is wondering if they're about to start off their Sunday afternoon by watching this guy break his neck.
Then, it happens.
The man leaps off the wall, touches down like a cat, and tucks his body into a front roll before hopping back to his feet and executing a standing front flip. He takes off running through the plaza, jumping from ledge to ledge, executing aerial twists and other gymnastic stunts.
Finally, he runs up the steps into the crowd of spectators, all of whom are now applauding his incredible feat of athleticism.
A few moments later, the rest of the group joins in, leaping from one point to the next, bouncing off of railings and back-flipping on to the concrete below. The older members of the group are taking turns videotaping each other's moves while advising the younger kids on how to properly perform their own leaps and rolls. To the casual observer, the entire scene is like one gigantic Jackie Chan movie, or an urban Cirque du Soleil (only Cirque usually doesn't have homeless guys sleeping in the background).
But for the members of Mn Parkour, this is just another Sunday.
Originated in France back in the 1980s, parkour is a physical discipline where participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible using only their bodies. Over the past several years, the sport has become increasingly popular thanks to TV shows like MTV's Ultimate Parkour Challenge and Jump City Seattle. A quick search of the word "parkour" on YouTube brings up hundreds of videos with millions of views, featuring traceurs—the official name for parkour athletes, derived from a Parisian slang word meaning "to hurry or move quickly"—flipping off of lifeguard stands and leaping from highway overpasses, and one guy in full Santa Claus gear running up a wall.
While the best traceurs are typically European, the U.S. has been churning out some pretty solid wall-jumping, freerunning superstars of our own in recent years. Because of the nature of parkour, the sport has considerably picked up in major urban areas like Seattle, San Francisco, and...Eagan, Minnesota.
THE CURRENT FORM of parkour was invented by a man named David Belle. He's the son of a military firefighter, and his father felt it was important he know how to successfully navigate out of dangerous situations. It was those underlying principles that sparked David's imagination, and ultimately led him to create a military obstacle course that included rope climbing, balancing on wooden beams, and more. He combined this training with his love of Bruce Lee movies, and Lee's approach to martial arts that embraced adaptability and evolution, in order to create the modern-day model for parkour.
While Eagan may not seem like it belongs in this conversation, Minnesota is quickly becoming a hotbed of parkour in the States, and Eagan is at the center of the action thanks to a guy named Chad Zwadlo.
A few weeks before the big outdoor training session, a group of parkour enthusiasts gathered at Gleason's Gymnastic School, where every Saturday night they practice their moves in an open setting. Standing off to the side, looking inconspicuous in a black hoodie and running pants, stands Zwadlo. With him is Mitch "Skinny" Andrejka, slightly younger and with a freshly gelled Mohawk. As they chat, a group of guys are critiquing one another as they perform back flips, mid-air twists, and other flashy moves. In another corner, a group of young teens are working on leaps and flips, while stopping occasionally to watch the more polished traceurs do their thing.
One young man, maybe 14, walks up to Zwadlo and Skinny with a special request.
"Chad, can you help me with my back flip?" he asks.
"Depends," Zwadlo says. "Can you do a back flip?"
"Yes. On the trampoline I can."
"Go do one on the trampoline—without jumping—and if you can do it I'll help you," he responds, as the kid quickly rushes off.
"This is the only time I get worried about people getting hurt doing parkour," Zwadlo says as he eyes the kid apprehensively. "You get beginners who aren't ready to do certain moves, trying crazy stuff they saw online and spraining their ankles or something stupid."
"Yeah, but isn't that how we learned it?" Skinny interjects.
Zwadlo shrugs his shoulders. The kid on the trampoline sets up for his big move. He jumps...and face-plants.
"Excuse me," Zwadlo says with a sigh. "I need to go save this kid's life."
AT 27 YEARS old, Zwadlo leads the charge of the parkour movement in Minnesota. He's the official correspondent for American Parkour, the leading online parkour community in the world, which currently boasts over 90,000 registered users in the United States. A 12-year student of American Freestyle Karate, Zwadlo first learned about the sport of free running the same way anyone discovers anything awesome these days: YouTube.
"I took one look at these guys and thought, 'This is so cool!' Zwadlo recalls. "I needed to be a part of it."
The parkour game turned out to be a little harder to learn than he originally realized.
"When I first got started, there really wasn't anywhere you could go to get actual training," he says. "It was pretty much just watching stuff on the internet and then going out and trying to copy it without hurting yourself."
After a while, he was able to find a handful of other local traceurs in the area, who informed him about a recently formed freerunning class at Gleason's, as well as the open gym session on Saturday nights. Soon after, Zwadlo was brought onboard as a teacher.
"The owner decided to start a freerunning class because he saw it online and thought it was cool, but he knew nothing about it," Zwadlo explains. "I think his plan was to basically get it started and eventually, he figured, he'd find someone who knew what he was doing. So one night I came in and started running and doing a few moves and he grabbed me and asked me if I wanted the job."
Today, Zwadlo teaches classes at Gleason's six days a week—every level from kids to advanced instruction. In addition, he took over the Mn Parkour meet-up group, which had only a few dozen members but today boasts nearly 600 active participants.
Skinny, 23, first learned about the sport when he watched a 2003 documentary called Jump London on TLC. Similar to Zwadlo, Skinny hopped online and started looking for others who shared his new interest.
"It was funny because I saw the movie, and a couple days later I was at school telling one of my friends about it," recalls Skinny. "He told me that he and a few other guys just started messing around and practicing parkour like two weeks earlier, so we got together and started running and jumping around together."
Now years later and thanks to the early efforts of guys like Zwadlo and Skinny, budding traceurs have a safer, easier way learn YouTube's favorite sport.
Still, Zwadlo isn't quite satisfied with the amenities available to Minnesota traceurs.
"Check this out," he says as he jumps straight up in the air and comes down on the cushioned, springy gymnastics mat beneath him. "You see that bounce? How are you supposed to train to land on concrete when you're jumping on this stuff? This is another reason why people get hurt. They train on these soft surfaces and land on their faces, but if it doesn't hurt then they figure they can do the same stuff outside. That's how people get hurt."
"Sometimes fear keeps you safe," adds Skinny.
In other parts of the country, there are dedicated parkour gyms with plywood, two-by-fours, metal bars, and other custom-built obstacles for freerunners. In early April, a group known as Team Tempest opened a facility in Los Angeles that is already being hailed as the premier parkour training facility in America. Decked out to look like the world of Super Mario Brothers, complete with question mark boxes, the facility boasts an over-7,000-square-foot arena with seating for spectators.
This fall, Zwadlo plans to follow in Team Tempest's footsteps and open his very own parkour training center in the Twin Cities, called the Fight or Flight Academy. His hopes are to have the gym open in September.
"If you really want to grow the sport, then you need to have places where people can train all year round, in a real-life environment," says Zwadlo. "With this school, we'll be able to get away from the mats and trampolines and all the stuff that isn't creating the right type of atmosphere to learn and grow."
While he promises that his gym will feature all of the crazy obstacles and features of any good traceur's paradise, safety is his number-one concern.
"My gym will be much more beginner-friendly—though also awesome—compared to some other gyms, plus it's going to be much safer, and much sturdier," he says. "I want to make sure that it's not too big or crazy for kids or beginners."
ON A RECENT Saturday night, a woman named Kirsten Walsh brought her 12-year-old son, David, along with two of his friends to Gleason's to run around and practice their moves under the watchful eyes of Chad and Skinny.
"When he first told me that he wanted to do this, I asked him if this was the type of thing delinquents do," Walsh says of her son. "Then he showed me and I realized it was like that stuff Jackie Chan does."
While she admits to being a little apprehensive at first, Walsh says she was put at ease by Zwadlo's dedication to the sport and his sense of responsibility to his students.
"Chad has been really great, because I can email him with questions about certain moves these guys are trying and whether or not it's safe, and he'll email me right back with an answer and more about what they should and shouldn't be doing," Walsh says. "This is just such a great thing for kids his age to be involved with, because it's good exercise and it's something they're really interested in."
David seems to have learned the lessons well, and already makes a good poster boy for the professionalism of the new sport.
"My friends and I saw it online and thought it looked really cool, so we started looking for places to do it outside," David says. "But then we Googled it and read about how some kids have gotten hurt trying moves they didn't know how to do. So we looked up places we could go to learn and found this group."
While his efforts to grow the sport through teaching and mentoring are his main focus, Zwadlo's desire to improve and grow as a freerunner is as strong as ever. Unlike other sports, parkour isn't a traditional competition. Instead, traceurs come together in huge group training settings, known in the parkour world as a "jam." This, he says, is where the real challenge takes place.
"Our competition is against ourselves and our environments, not against each other," he says.
But that hasn't stopped companies from trying to stage competitions all over the world. The Barclaycard World Freerun Championships and Red Bull Art of Motion are two of the largest and best-known competitive freerunning events held over the past few years, both of which were held in Europe and attracted hundreds of the sport's best traceurs. Red Bull has also sponsored a handful of competitions stateside last year, and more parkour-oriented events are popping up all the time.
While he worries about the corruptive influence of corporate-sponsored contests, Zwadlo recognizes that these types of events will only continue to grow in popularity and bring new followers of the sport.
And Zwadlo isn't exactly trying to stay out of the spotlight himself. He's part of a local stunt group called Open Air, which does live shows as well as TV work.
"We just recently did a commercial for America's Got Talent, which was pretty cool," Zwadlo says. "There was also a zombie movie that a local filmmaker shot, and we all got to play zombies. That was awesome because we got to do a lot of tricks with getting shot and beat up. Unfortunately I don't think he ever finished it, so I've never seen the finished product."
But financial rewards will never replace what got him into the sport in the first place.
"There are a lot of guys who are interested in using parkour and freerunning to get sponsored or to get famous, and I'm not really a fan of that," he says. "I mean, to each their own. But to me you should do something—whether it's parkour or any other sport—because it's fun."
AS THE SUNDAY jam comes to a close, Zwadlo, Skinny, and a handful of others take a few moments to reflect on the day's events, and why this year is likely to be the biggest in Twin Cities Parkour history.
"It's really weird to think that just a few years ago we would get like six people out here for weekend training; today we had like 30," Zwadlo says. "The major national jams will sometimes only get like 50 people, and we're pulling numbers close to that on a random Sunday."
As for why parkour is growing at such a rapid rate, especially in the Twin Cities, Skinny says the answer is that it's the most natural sport of all.
"Think about it like this: When you're a kid, you just run around and climb on bars and jump off of stuff. You're playing," Skinny says. "Then as we get older, society tells you that you need to stop doing that. They tell us that we need start walking in a straight line on the sidewalk, telling us to stop playing.
"What we're doing here today, this is just us getting back to our roots: We're playing and having fun."
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