Hardcore parkour: students combine agility and fitness as they navigate the campus

Written by: Noelle Gilman

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Miles Applegate caroms over the architectural obstacles surrounding Mercer’s lawn like a kangaroo; one can almost see the springs attached to his black Conversesneakers.  As his lithe body tenses, he prepares to conquer the next barrier; first the paint-chipped handrails, then the cement tiers that tower above. Then he drops casually off the structures, landing with a soft thud. These somersaults, backflips, and roundoff flash-kicks form a graceful routine in a sport known as parkour.  Mercer students strolling to class may be astonished to witness the acrobatic maneuvers, but to Applegate and his friends, this is just another Tuesday.

Applegate, a third year Physical Science major, has participated in parkour since the fall of 2009. Parkour is physical discipline that, according to its founder David Belle, “allows [one] to overcome obstacles, both in the urban and natural environments.”

However, Belle’s definition doesn’t capture the full athletic grace and complexity of the sport or its edgy appeal.

In his article “How Parkour Works,” posted on the Discovery subsidiary website HowStuffWorks.com, author Cameron Lawrence paints a more detailed picture of parkour. Lawrence says, “it is creative expression through acrobatic moves like leaping from walls and over gaps, ground rolls and precision jumping…instead of running laps…[one navigates] through the city, making the urban landscape [a] personal obstacle course, a playground for strength, freedom, courage and discipline.”

It is both the agility and risk involved with parkour which make the sport ideal for movies. Belle’s expertise has been used in several  American movies, including Disney’s Prince of Persia and Colombiana(2010). Perhaps the most famous feature of parkour is the opening scene of  Casino Royale (2006) during which James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, chases his target through the streets of a city in Madagascar.

Of the media’s portrayal, and the resulting stereotypes of parkour, Applegate says, “People assume most parkour athletes to just be kids, similar to skateboarders, who like to be reckless…kids who have no knowledge of the consequences of doing such dangerous activities nor the disciplined background behind it…but few know that parkour was actually designed around the idea of efficient movement with the least amount of energy expended.”

Parkour is also about individual expression. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Applegate teaches the other Mercer students the fundamentals of parkour. The manifestation of those skills, however, is up to each person’s physical and artistic strengths.

Marcellus Cole, a first-year Early Childhood Education student at Mercer’s James Kerney campus, is one athlete of varied background. As a child of the military, Cole lived in multiple locations worldwide including Japan and Korea, where he says he sometimes felt like an outcast. To change his situation, Cole became involved in martial arts. During his time in the United States, Cole also learned how to breakdance.

“New parkour artists, go straight into parkour unlike me.” says Cole. “When I grew up parkour wasn’t around. [My transition to the sport] was simple. I began with basic running and jumping and getting used to taking the chance and risk, and then I just used my dancing and karate for the rest.”

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Like Cole, Applegate applies a background in martial arts to parkour; these skills are manifested in their tricking, a form of acrobatic moves both use. Tricking is similar to parkour in that it derives from multiple sports, including floor gymnastics, to create new forms of movement like flips, twists and kicks. However, unlike parkour, a major component of tricking is showmanship; therefore, the sport is best suited to a gym. For Cole and Applegate, parkour seemed a natural expansion from tricking.

Despite years of experience performing skills such as round-off backflips, Miles and Cole incur frequent injuries –mostly minor ones– including Cole’s shoulder sprain at last Thursday’s practice.

Teammate Jonathan Zahn, has suffered the greatest number of injuries. Zahn, a first year Liberal Arts student, says he has broken several fingers and shattered at least one ankle while training for parkour.

Zahn told The VOICE, “Fear has always prevented me from my best…fear is also why I get hurt. [I get hurt] if i become afraid and stall at a critical moment…if one wants to do parkour fully, they must trust their ability.”

Another Mercer parkour participant, second year music major Solomon Bradley said “You won’t get hurt if you know your body’s limits and capabilities.”

From Applegate, Cole, Zahn and Bradley to Belle and other professionals, parkour is a way in which people can exercise and have fun simultaneously. Likewise, from amateur to expert, self-awareness remains central to the practice of parkour.

Belle states on his website, “Parkour is firstly about the useful side, to teach people how to trust themselves, to learn to be careful. The philosophy is always to advance, never to stop. If some time you have problems, like in life, if you have an obstacle you must always continue forward.”

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Noelle Gilman
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