Positively Strong: Parkour Finds a Foothold in the Finger Lakes

One Saturday afternoon last August, I took my 14-year-old son, David, to a parkour training session in Manhattan Square Park in Rochester. Although he’s tried plenty of sports – soccer, basketball, baseball, track, swimming – he’s never been passionate about any of them. Still, he’s an active kid who likes to be outdoors climbing trees, trying out handstands, or practicing a spectacular dismount from the swing he has long outgrown.

One day, while searching for “back flip” videos on YouTube (I said he was a 14-year-old boy), he came across the concept of parkour – a physical discipline in which the athlete views the world as an obstacle course and moves from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible no matter what lies in his or her path. For example, if a picnic table is in the way, instead of going around it, he’d simply vault himself over it. Vaulting? Outdoors? Noncompetitively? David had to find out more.

After a few Google searches, he came across Rochester Parkour, a group founded by Zachary Cohn and Charles Moreland, two students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Zac and Charlie lead weekly parkour training sessions, and David wanted to go.

We arrived at Manhattan Square Park, and David quickly found the other athletes (called “traceurs”). The group, which numbered about 25 that day, was made up of mostly young men and a few women, all ranging in age from teens to mid-40s. The size and architecture of the park lends itself particularly well to a discipline like parkour. Its many stairs, half walls and railings provide a variety of obstacles and shapes to incorporate into the movements.

The session began with the participants performing a cat walk (crawling on all fours) atop the half walls of the park. This was followed by taking turns balancing on a handrail while grasping for finger holds in the adjacent brick wall. The final exercise of the day was a wall run; the traceurs were to run at a wall approximately 8 feet high, kick their feet up and pull their bodies over the top. David was first in line, and I nervously watched as he ran, leaped and successfully pulled himself up. The group cheered and the next person took her turn.

Not everyone was able to complete the exercise, and when failure happened, the instructors and other participants were quick to give advice on how to improve. The line cycled through several times, and with each round, the group became more comfortable with and encouraging of each other. When the person who hadn’t been able to get over the wall finally succeeded on the sixth try, the small crowd cheered louder than ever.

A positive spin
It is this “positivity” that is especially appealing. “Pretend you’re playing baseball, you’re standing at home plate, and you strike out,” explains David. “You’d be a disappointment to the team, and they’d let you know it. Whereas, if you’re doing parkour and don’t do something right, the other people will cheer you on and help you with each movement until you get it. It wouldn’t just be the instructor doing that either – it would be everyone. It’s a really friendly environment.”

According to Zac, it’s not just the Rochester group that is like this. “One of the big things about the national parkour community is that it is so friendly,” he told me in a recent interview. “The positivity is part of the philosophy of parkour. One of our mottoes is: ‘Be strong to be useful.’ We train and become physically strong so that if necessary we can lift someone or carry something heavy or even go out into the cold and help someone fix a flat tire.”

Zac is not only the cofounder of Rochester Parkour, he’s also the marketing coordinator of American Parkour, based in Washington, D.C. Being at the pulse point of the national community has allowed him to realize what a significant role Rochester has had in this discipline.

“When we did our beginner workshops in Rochester last March, we had 100 people show up. Since then our regular training session numbers have increased exponentially. By the end of November we were still having 40 people show up to our weekly jams [informal sessions]. That’s the biggest regular jam in the United States! Most have only five to 10 people, and a group of 20 is considered big. To have a regular jam that still gets 40 people is pretty impressive.”

Safety first
Zac says the popularity of parkour has been skyrocketing, partly due to exposure in the media. The season premiere of The Office featured three of the characters attempting to do parkour in their workspace. The James Bond film Casino Royale also showed several impressive – and dangerous – parkour stunts. While the extreme stunts seen in the movie may be eye-catching, they are not something you’d see at a typical parkour session, say Zac and Charlie.

“The mentality of ‘go big or stay home’ has no place in parkour,” Zac explained. “People who do big things before they’re ready are the ones who are pushed out of the community. We highly discourage reckless behavior. Because most of our training is done outdoors, if we fall there’s no padded floor under us, so we have to really focus on safety.”

How do they make movements like vaulting over a picnic table or park bench safer? By breaking everything down into small individual steps and gradually progressing to the final movement. “When you get to the last step in the progression, you’re just adding a tiny bit more,” said Zac. “Using progressive steps makes parkour safe, simple and easy.”

They also teach other traceurs how to fall and roll, knowing that if they fall during an attempted move, they need to do it in a way that is least likely to cause an injury. “In gymnastics you roll head over heals,” said Charlie. “Rolling down your spine is good when you have padding, but it’s not so good on concrete. We teach people how to roll from one shoulder to the opposite hip to avoid spinal contact with the ground.”

Charlie especially likes the philosophical aspect of parkour. “You realize that everything in life could be viewed as an obstacle or an opportunity, and you can brainstorm ways to turn the obstacles into opportunities. I think that’s the defining aspect of the parkour community.”

Ithaca Parkour
Charlie and Zac’s role in the parkour community has extended beyond Rochester into the Finger Lake Region. Last year they went to Ithaca to help two high school girls start a parkour community there. Sophomore Hannah Wilson and Rebecca Myers, a senior, run regular training sessions with people from all over Tompkins County.

“We had to make it so it wasn’t affiliated with any schools,” Hannah told me. “If it were, we would have only been able to allow students from that particular school to come. In order to have more people, we chose not to affiliate with a school, but we are associated with American Parkour.”

Hannah and Rebecca do much of their training on playgrounds as the equipment allows them to practice balancing, vaulting and climbing. They also train in nature’s playground: the woods. “I like to train in nature, and I think the Finger Lakes area is good for that,” says Hannah, adding, “I do make sure that I only go in areas that we’re allowed to be in.”

The fact that parkour requires no special equipment is appealing to her. “You don’t need anything but your body. That’s why it’s so popular in the city. Everything you need is there, and you don’t need money or equipment to train. You just need the ability to move.”

At the time of our interview, Hannah’s movement had recently been limited due to a pulled hamstring. Just as I was about to grill her about safety, she added: “I haven’t injured myself doing parkour. I injured myself during English class.”
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Interested in doing parkour?
Contact Zac or Charlie through www.rochesterparkour.com.
Look for Ithaca Parkour on www.facebook.com. For tutorials on how to get started, check out www.AmericanParkour.com.


by Kari Anderson-Pink
Kari Anderson-Pink lives in Victor with her husband and three children. In addition to freelance writing, she plays the piano, organ and harp professionally and also teaches skin care and makeup artistry. She can be contacted at karijanderson@hotmail.com.