Acrobatic sport parkour makes its way to mid-Missouri

Parkour enthusiasts hope to lure others into this growing acrobatic sport requiring efficiency, speed
Wednesday, August 29, 2007 | 10:09 p.m. CDT; updated 10:17 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 9, 2008
David Boyko does a back flip as Nathan Zabel films the move in the park adjacent to the Boone County Courthouse. Zabel and Boyko catapult, vault, hurl, swerve and somersault as they “free run” through an urban landscape. Zabel and his friends will star in a short film clip between features at next year’s True/False Film Festival.

If you’ve seen the first 10 minutes of the most recent James Bond film, “Casino Royale,” then you’ve seen parkour. If you haven’t, you might just look out your back window.

“We were watching a squirrel in our backyard the other day, and he jumped from one ledge to another ledge and I said ‘Hey, that’s parkour right there.’” said Nathan Zabel, an MU senior majoring in art.


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Zabel discovered parkour after watching “Casino Royale.” He was interested in some of the stunts in it, and after searching the Internet, he discovered they were rooted in an actual movement created by Frenchman David Belle in the late 1980s. He also found out that parkour is already popular in Europe and other parts of the world, including the U.S.

Zabel, a former MU swimmer, found the rest of what he needed to get started on the Internet. He introduced parkour to his friends, and this informal group has been practicing what they call the discipline of parkour since early spring. In that time, they’ve produced two parkour videos for YouTube and plan to do more.

To put it mildly, they are hooked. And they’d like to see a whole lot more people involved.

They’re not alone. Mark Toorock, head of the American Parkour organization, said the growth of the sport has been explosive “because of events like ‘Casino Royale’ and other events in the media’s eye.” He has recently opened Primal Fitness, a parkour gym, in Washington, D.C., and hopes to see the sport’s popularity continue to grow.

Zabel defines parkour as “a way of interacting with your environment that’s driven by reach and evade.” In practice, that means using walls, parking ramps, park benches and anything else handy to travel in a straight line without moving backwards. Speed and efficiency are at the core of parkour’s philosophy. Free running, a popular extension of parkour, allows for more theatrical movements such as back flips and is commonly referred to simply as free-style parkour.

Typically parkour is practiced in urban areas, but Zabel and his roommate David Boyko, an MU senior majoring in health and nutrition and a current MU swimmer, say parkour lends itself to any outdoor area. That means leaping over that bike rack, somersaulting under handrails and climbing over the slide in the park.

From this perspective, both men claim that they’ve been practicing parkour since they were boys. “I’ve spent my entire life climbing trees and jumping over trash cans. Only now there’s a name for it,” Boyko says.

Traceurs, participants of parkour, do not race each other but focus on improving their skills. “It’s an individual sport that works best when practiced (by people) together,” Zabel said.

Zabel and Boyko hold what they call parkour “jam sessions” with fellow traceurs. They meet at various places throughout Columbia to practice together, share new movement ideas, critique each other and film themselves.

“David took me to a place I’ve been to a million times before and got me to look at the space in a whole new way,” Zabel says. The place was the entryway of a building on the Stephens College campus. Such eureka experiences are what attracted Zabel and Boyko to parkour.

“The point of it is to become stronger and to build skills,” Zabel said. “So I’d say as long as you can walk, you can have fun with parkour.”

But there are risks to leaping through the air from one hard place to another. The American Parkour Web site, which is, carries a disclaimer reminding people of the risks of injury and of potential damage to property. The Web site also reminds people that they assume responsibility for any of their actions.

“It is dangerous, but danger is everywhere,” said Zabel, admitting that when he began practicing parkour he had more muscle soreness than he’d ever had in his life. He also said that he and his friends have never been hurt.

Nor have they been bothered by law enforcement as they practiced in public spaces. “I don’t know of it being against the law anywhere, but I know trespassing is what gets a lot of people in trouble,” Zabel said.

That’s why he’d like to open a gym and give budding traceurs a place to learn the discipline, what’s safe and what’s not. He would also like to have a program geared toward children to help keep them out of trouble and physically active. Zabel sees it as a way to teach strategies they can apply in other areas of their lives.

“Parkour is more than just running around town,” he said. “It’s about focusing on how to overcome life’s obstacles in the most efficient manner. You can apply this stuff to all parts of your life.”

Although he wishes otherwise, Zabel’s group of traceurs hasn’t expanded beyond the original handful of friends. But after the next True/False Film Festival, he may have a different story to tell. He and his friends will star in a “bump” — a short film clip between features — and a television commercial promoting the festival.

Paul Sturtz, one of the festival’s organizers, said “the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! amazing type of art form that parkour is fits quite neatly with next year’s theme for the festival,” which remains a highly guarded secret.

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