Monday, December 19, 2011

Visit to France - Training with the Yamakasi

After a few weeks in London I headed to Paris for a few days to go back to where I had first been exposed to parkour and to catch up with a number of old friends there. 

My plane arrived in Paris late at night so I crashed at a friend’s house and took the RER to Evry the next morning.  My visit just happened to overlap with Laurent being in town as well so I joined him at the cathedral for a “handstand block” followed by a light 45-min jog around Evry/Lisses.  The run ended up being an unofficial tour of parkour’s early days and he “unconsciously” managed to take us by most of the buildings that are seen in the earliest parkour videos.
My visit also happened to overlap with Jun Sato’s visit before he headed back to Japan, and we were both generously hosted by Philippe.  We were also joined by Valentin, Philippe’s best friend, who had recently come over to Europe as parkour of a Réunionese exodus of parkour talent to Europe (more about his countrymen Axel and Kevin later).  This made for a very entertaining train rides in the mornings as we made the long journey from Philippe’s house to civilization every morning.

Jun found a good way to pass the time on the long rides to and from Philippe's house.

The next day we headed back to Evry to check out the new training facility that the ADD Academy had recently completed.  While not yet open to the public due to some bureaucratic nonsense about the maximum number of people allowed in the space at one time, the facility is pretty good and offers a lot of potential for winter and bad-weather training as well as providing a good location to work on flips and acrobatics. 

The entrance, which is located in the middle of the mall in Evry.

The interior.

Lots of space, lots of mats...
 After hanging around at the gym, where we were joined by some of the other ADD Academy guys that had come by to train for a bit, we headed to Paris to join in the ADD Academy class that night.  The class was much bigger than I expected (40+ people) and it was really great to see that the academy was growing strong.  The class itself was well-run and featured instruction by Chau and Ben (who I hadn't met before, but who definitely fits in with the Yamak spirit).  I was also surprised to find that, like the Parkour Generations classes in London, the vast majority of the participants at the class were working professionals who were using it as an alternative to going to a “normal gym”.  The class felt significantly easier than the last time I had been to one of the ADD Academy Parisian classes (during a research trip in 2009), although I suspect that this was because my training has come a long way since then.  I guess that Chau noticed that I wasn't feeling too tired by the end as he invited me to the “team training” the next morning at Bercy.

We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning to get to Bercy and we arrived to find the guys ready and raring to go.  In typical Yamak fashion we spent the first hour and a half running, crawling, and jumping up the stairs of the Bercy stadium.  After absolutely shattering our legs Chau brought us to the next part of the training, which turned out to be plyometric strides and jumps along the bollards by the fountain.  By the two-hour mark our legs were starting to cramp and give out so Chau decided that enough was enough and it was time to move on to the second half of the training- arms.  He picked what seemed like a small and non-descript white guard railing by the skate park but an hour later I knew every intimate inch of that railing.  The arm workout turned out to be even more brutal than the leg portion and by the end of it almost all of us had forearms that felt as if they had swollen to the size of our quads.

Once we had “gotten to know” the railing we moved over to one of the ping-pong tables in the park.  Normally a very non-aggressive and demure object, by the end of the exercises going over, under, up, and down the rough concrete edges of the table we had all left significant quantities of blood and sweat behind.

After the training we all headed over to a local Vietnamese restaurant for a delicious lunch “en famille”.  Basking in that feeling that comes after an extended punishing workout I realized that this was perhaps one of the things that I missed most about the Yamak style of training- spending a few hours pushing the limits of strength and endurance, with few breaks or time spent fooling around, and then taking time to hang out with new and old friends that were forged with the blood sweat and tears from the workout- preferably in a venue with copious quantities of good food.  While I had pushed myself to my limits on the other two occasions that I had spent time with the guys in Paris (2009, 2010), this was the first time that I was able to properly to join in the training and I finally felt like I had earned my place at the table, both as a friend and now as a traceur.  While it was great to see the progress that I have made over the past year and a half, training with the guys that day also reminded me of how much I have yet to learn, and not just in terms of techniques and movements, but also in life.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Watson: Year 2 – the return to London and Rendezvous 2011

So after a few weeks at home I returned to London for two months.  While this was done under the general premise of continuing my research into parkour, I also wanted to attend some key events, get a lot more instructing experience with Parkour Generations, and to learn more about how a “parkour company” is run and organized.  I returned to London on the day before Rendezvous and arrived in the city just in time to catch the tail end of the instructor’s meeting at Elephant and Castle.

Photo courtesy of Jun Sato.

Group conditioning with the other instructors.  Photo courtesy of Jun Sato.

Taking over a local restaurant for dinner (and lots of press-ups).
While it was great to see a lot of familiar faces from my travels, it was also slightly disconcerting to see many of them standing side by side and interacting with each other.  This feeling was compounded the next day with the official start of Rendezvous VI, which featured a very diverse group of participants, among them people that I had last seen in Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, or Italy.  While it took me a little while to get used to, I left the event with the distinct feeling of being part of the “community fabric” of the sport, which was a pretty cool feeling, especially when looking back to Rendezvous a year ago when I knew almost as many of the French guys as I did anyone else at the event.  It was also really good to see how far my “generation” (no pun intended) has progressed over the past year.  While I’m sure that the steady improvement is pretty standard in the sport, I do get the feeling that the group of people that I started training with in London has made a particularly concerted effort to get better and “make something” of their parkour.

In my initial plan to come back to London for Rendezvous, one of the reasons for this had been that the event was also supposed to coincide with the opening of the L.E.A.P. parkour park and training facility at the Westminster Sports Academy.  However, due to a combination of problems with the builders and municipal bureaucracy, this was not to be.

Checking out the park.  Photo courtesy of Ludo. 

So nice, yet so unfinished...  Photo courtesy of Ludo.

To be re-visited.  Photo courtesy of Ludo.
Despite the absence of the “headliner”, the event was still a big success and included nearly 200 traceurs from around the world. During the two-day event participants were given the opportunity to partake in a number of different workshops that were led by a variety of specialists from around the world.  Some were parkour training specific such as strength training and body-weight training with Chris Keighley and Blane, while others dealt with issues such as proper stretching routines, nutrition, and even some presentations by Julie Angel and Andy “Kiel” Day, the renowned film-making and photography duo that are probably some of the most knowledgeable people about the history and development of parkour today.

A stretching session led by Awsa.  Photo by Philippe Gaya.
The rest of Rendezvous was filled with two long days of the hard training that has come to be synonymous with the event, which was only exasperated by the presence of Williams Belle.  While it was later confirmed that he did everything at the event with two broken shins bones, he still managed to move around with a grace and fluidity that was inspiring to witness and which left pretty much everyone, including a lot of the more experienced guys, struggling awkwardly to master the new movements.  This was the first time that I managed to successfully cross paths with Williams in my travels and I was glad to finally be able to meet and train with him.

For me, this year was an interesting contrast with my participation in last year's event, mostly because I was wearing a white "Instructor" shirt this year.  While the absence of Chau and Laurent, who seem to have an innate ability to make people do quantities of exercises that they would not normally perform voluntarily, was definitely felt, the mantles of "hard-ass" were quickly taken up by some of the Parkour Generations instructors who seem to have perfected the art of self-inflicted physical misery as well.  Needless to say, I’m sure that that there were a lot of people that woke up very sore the following Monday and Tuesday.  All in all it was another great event and was a testament to the ever-increasing popularity of parkour around Europe.
Trust falls.  Photo by Philippe Gaya. 

Forrest leading the stretching at the end of the second day.  Photo by Philippe Gaya.

Brian getting some extra exercise.  Photo by Oliver Thorpe.

Training in the skate park next door.  Photo by Oliver Thorpe. 

Photo by Jun Sato.

The instructors of RDV 6.  Photo by Jun Sato.

Friday, November 25, 2011

2011 Watson Fellow Conference

The 2011 Watson Conference was probably one of the most amazing experiences of the trip for me.  This is for many reasons, but mainly because of the amazing people that I met there.  Although we weren’t allowed to talk or network with each other while “in the field” there was an instant bond that formed between us as soon as we met.  Due to the huge amount of “shared experience” that happened during our Watson years, friendships were forged within minutes.  After a few hours many of us felt as if we’d known each other for years and stories started to go beyond the superficial layers to talk about the less-glamorous parts of the trip that many of us had glossed over in conversations with most people on our travels.  In addition to all of the personal interactions each fellow had the opportunity to present their project to the group, although all of us struggled to relate the full scale of the project to the conference within the allotted time.

The 2010-2011 Thomas J. Watson Fellows.  Photo taken by Burleigh Morton.
The video that I made for the presentation was very well received and I even got a chance to lead a very brief training session on the grass outside the presentation hall during our break period.

The director of the Watson Foundation, Chris Kasabach, trying out parkour during some down time.  Photo Courtesy of my fellow Watsons.

Summer in the USA

While not going to grad school did free up a large amount of time in my summer schedule, this time was quickly filled up again working a variety of odd jobs and preparing my final presentation for the Watson Fellowship Conference, held at Carlton College in Minnesota. While I can’t say that I slaved over the resulting video for the entire duration of the month I spent at home, it did take up a substantial portion of it, mostly due to my lack of video-editing skills and the absence of a clear narrative when I started.

While at home I did manage to spend some “quality time” with my family and a few close friends, squeezing in quick visits to Newport, Charlotte, Raleigh, and New York City.

Passing on the knowledge to the rest of the family.  Photo courtesy of Evitt Wildlife Photography.

A nice relaxing day at the beach.  Photo courtesy of Evitt Wildlife Photography.
I also led my first solo parkour class/workshop on home soil to a local group in Boston.  While some members of the group were not nearly as willing or enthusiastic about the course as I was used to (they didn’t exactly participate voluntarily), it went well on a whole and was a good opportunity for me to try leading things entirely on my own.
Leading the warm-up on the railings.

Re-visiting childhood.

Group stretching session at the end.

Final Week in London

The last week of my Watson trip was spent in London trying to tie up many of the loose ends to the project, including a number of interviews with people that I hadn’t managed to get in front of the camera yet.  It was also good to have a sense of coming full circle and to get a chance to “break” (successfully complete) a number of jumps and challenges that had seemed impossible to me when I left in October but had mysteriously shrunk or become less intimidating over the course of 8 months.

I also used this time to finalize my plans for the coming year.  I decided at the last minute that I would not be attending the University of Virginia to pursue the masters degree in Marketing and Management that I had deferred admission to in order to go on the Watson.  While a large part of this decision was due to the cost-benefit analysis between the steep tuition costs and what I wanted to do afterwards, another part of it was because I felt that I have been given an extraordinary opportunity with the Watson and couldn’t let that go to waste by “selling my soul” to the corporate world.  This decision was an especially difficult one for me given the strength of some emotional ties at play, and while I will never know what would have happened if I’d chosen otherwise, I’m pretty sure that I made the right choice.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NUK++ and the Nord-Norge Festival

After leaving the base we headed to Harstad, where we would be working at the NUK++ kids festival which was associated with the Nord-Norje (Northern Norway) music festival.  The festival is part of the European “summer season” of festivals and the NUK++ element was added to give kids a chance to see parts of it and also to function as a sort of “summer camp” for a week.  Children are given the opportunity to sign up for one of a number of different subjects, ranging from parkour to music composition to candle-dipping.  Over the course of a week they spend most of the day working on that subject and interacting with the other children, preparing for the final talent show in which they exhibit their work to family and friends.

Harstad, Norway.

The NUK++ logo.

Our first two days in Harstad also included a workshop for a group of Norwegian dancers that had contacted Streetmovment to arrange the workshop.  Since both Martin and Mikkel were doing a demonstration for the NUK++ festival the first day, I was given the responsibility of leading the first half of the dancer’s workshop.  Despite being rather nervous about running my first official class totally solo, the class went really well and I had a ton of fun.  The dancers picked up the movements very quickly and seemed to possess a natural fluidity and grace that many traceurs take a long time to develop, if ever.  Of course their enthusiasm and interest made my job easy, as did the fact that they were used to pushing themselves physically as a group, and used their group dynamics to ensure that everyone kept up.  By the end of the class I was on a huge “teaching high”, a sensation that continued throughout the rest of the week.

A local paper's coverage of the workshop with the dancers.   Courtesy of the Intuit Dance Company.
The rest of the week passed in a blur, between spending the days teaching the students, and the nights exploring the festival nightlife with Martin and Mikkel.  As official “artists” at the festival, we were given passes that allowed us free access to all of the shows and concerts at the festival, which was a huge perk.  I found it pretty interesting that the Danes and Norwegians were able to communicate almost seamlessly while talking in their own tongues, and were even able to understand the Swedish rap group that played one night. While I didn’t find Norwegian any easier to understand than Danish, I did find that Norway, like Denmark, has such a high rate of English-speakers that communication wasn’t much of an issue.  Yes, I did feel a bit left out at times when people reverted to their native languages to “talk business”, but that is to be expected when living in a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language. 

Being tourists (Note: it was 10pm at the time this photo was taken).  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Enjoying the view from our rooftop training arena our first day in Harstad.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe

All work and no play... or the other way around.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Leave it to the hipster to be the clown.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.
The NUK++ workshop went really well and the kids made a huge amount of progress over the course of the week.  While some of them did have prior experience with parkour, for many of them that “experience” was limited to watching and emulating YouTube videos and most had never seen anything like the Streetmovement training method.  However, unlike many people when confronted with the hard training and conditioning that accompanies what I would call “real parkour” (as opposed to going outside and “playing ninja” on a roof for a bit), the kids really embraced the training.  Of course not everything was hard work, and we made sure to keep things fun, but the kids seemed pretty intent to get the most out of the training that they could.  When they performed at the final “talent show” at the end of the week, I couldn’t help but be really proud of them and the progress that they had made in such a short amount of time.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

A bit of a "warmup" on the stairs.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Catching up on the blog during some free moments.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Streetmovement goes abroad – Norway

All too soon my time in Denmark came to an end and I found myself in the airport yet again.  However, this time was different.  Not only because I was doing quadrepedal movement and handstands on the rolling walkways of the airport terminal, but because I was traveling with other people for the first time in ages.  Martin and Mikkel from Streetmovement had invited me to join them for two workshops that they would be doing in northern Norway.

The first workshop was with a group of Norwegian naval commandos, known as the FROGS (I don’t know why they have continued the SEALS tradition of the cute and cuddly animals).  Streetmovment had done a workshop with them the year before in which the commandos had referred to the quadrepedie workout as “dynamic yoga” so I was looking forward to meeting these guys.  Unfortunately the visit was cut short by some airplane delays, and despite arriving in the late evening, the fact that we were only about 300km from the North Pole meant that the sun made it looked like we had arrived in the mid afternoon.  By the time we had been picked up in the black unmarked van, driven to the base, turned off all electronic equipment, gotten something to eat, and gone a quick tour of the facilities, it had progressed to "late afternoon", which I was informed was as dark as it gets at that time of year.  This was somewhat disconcerting, especially as the base did not at all fit with the image I’d had in my mind of an impenetrable mountain ice fortress surrounded by polar bears.  Instead it looked more like a small village whose residents had a penchant for long, barracks-like houses, drab paint colors, and big metal boats.

While I wasn't allowed to take pictures, this picture pretty much sums up the breathtaking natural surroundings.

So the name is about as "cute and cuddly" as the FROGS get, everything else about them, including their crest, encourages one not to make too many jokes at their expense.
We were up early the next morning to eat breakfast and meet up with the guys that we would be training with that day.  I won’t be giving too many details on the rest of the day’s activities because I was kindly asked not to by the commanding officer, nor will I be supplying any photos of the training.  One of the highlights of the visit was the opportunity to try out the brand-new obstacle course that had just been built on the base.  The commander was very proud of this course, in which he had included a number of “modifications” to traditional military obstacles.  The result was pretty cool, and lots of fun to go through.  While the traceur’s path through some of the obstacles was definitely much lighter and faster than the commando’s routes, the lack of military boots, big backpack, and a weapon made our progress a lot easier.  That being said, there were a few obstacles that definitely make us hesitate for a moment or two, including a rolling log obstacle that seemed to work better when wearing boots, and the last one, which had a nickname that I don’t feel comfortable publishing on the blog.  Essentially a giant version of a “Giant’s Ladder”, it was made up of a “ladder” that had one end anchored in a pier protruding out over the fjord, and the other end that extended out over the water at an angle.  The “ladder” was about 14m tall and composed of 6 cylindrical rungs, spaced every 2 meters (6+ feet) and each about a thick as my torso.  The objective was to ascend the ladder by jumping from rung to rung and then jump from the last one to the icy depths 14m below.  And survive.

When we got to the last obstacle Mikkel generously (or foolishly) offered to go first, and as the military guys watched in amusement he made it to the top, and after a few moments of hesitation, took the 14m drop down to the water below.  After watching Mikkel fall for what seemed like a maddeningly long time, Martin and I both only went halfway up before dropping into the frigid depths below, which in reality was probably the worst part since it was paralyzing cold and swimming in shoes and sweatpants in near-freezing water was not an enjoyable experience.  After some long hot showers to restore feeling to our limbs we packed up to head over to the next workshop with a slightly less intimidating group of participants. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Construction of a park in Odense

In addition to all the parks and architectural projects in the Copenhagen, Streetmovement also does a number of projects around Denmark. My stay in Denmark just happened to coincide with the completion of one of these projects in the city of Odense, which I nicknamed the “Moonscape”.  Always willing to sling around some dirt and build something, I got a chance to help out on the final days of construction for the park, which was designed as a joint project between the Streetmovement guys and a high-level Danish climber named Jens Munk Clemmensen. The result was pretty cool and shows the desire by the Streetmovement guys to go beyond the "typical" parkour park that is becoming more and more popular around the world.

In the construction phase. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The view of the bay.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Unique?  Definitely.  Pushing the limits of "parkour parks".   Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The "stairs" leading up from the base of the hill to the park. Photo courtesy of Jens Munk Clemmensen.  

The completed park (the grass will grow in soon I'm told).  Photo courtesy of Jens Munk Clemmensen.

Some of the Streetmovement guys testing out the new park at its opening.  Photo courtesy of Jens Munk Clemmensen..

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Streetmovement & Streetcamp 7

Streetmovement was started in Copenhagen in by Peter Ammentorp, Martin Kallesøe, Sebastien Louis Peronard and Mikkel Thisen.  They achieved early notoriety in Denmark with the release of Kasper Astrup Schröder’s documentary “City Surfers” in 2007.  The film that highlighted the growth of the young men and the inspiration that they took from the Yamakasi founders in Paris, most notably from Yann and Laurent.

Today, both Martin and Mikkel are still with Streetmovement, which has had a huge influence on the Danish parkour scene.  The addition of Mikkel Rugaard and his architectural and performance experience to the team has also created a number of opportunities for the company, which routinely does workshops and performances throughout Denmark and Northern Europe, in addition to a large amount of work in the regions in and around Copenhagen.

My introduction to the Streetmovement style of training was really during Streetcamp 7, which coincided with my first few days at Gerlev.  “Streetcamp” is a 4-day bi-annual event that is offered to the youth of Copenhagen and gives them a glimpse at the lives they would lead as students at Gerlev (including a few days of the amazing food that Gerlev is renowned for).  The course features lots of training time with the Streetmovement instructors, as well as a guest instructor that is usually brought in from Parkour Generations.  For Streetcamp 7, this happened to be the one and only Brian Appiah Obeng, who turned out to be a huge hit with the young traceurs.

The thirty or so participants in Streetcamp 7 ranged in age from 13-18 and included a wide variety of skill levels as well.  While a few of the participants had only been training for a short time, many of them had been training and participating in earlier Streetcamps for much longer, some even for a few years.  Throughout the week I was repeatedly impressed by the levels of determination and drive that the kids showed, and their ability to maintain high energy levels throughout a weekend full of long days of intense training interspersed with lots of socializing and a bit of sleep. 

A hill workout- the "welcome" to Streetcamp.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The kids getting aquainted with Brian. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.  

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Building confidence with some mental challenges. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe. 

A group warm-up on the last day. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe. 

Tired but still pushing through the last workout. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The Streetmovement style of training includes a large amount of conditioning and strength training, and the Yamakasi influence is very evident.  That being said, the Streetmovement guys have combined the French founder’s tradition of “strong mind, strong body” with the advances of modern sports science to create a very intense but well-structured training program.  For me it made for an interesting combination because I had been exposed to many elements of it while training for high-level track/athletics.  During Streetcamp I was struck by the fact that not only was the Streetmovement method of training very effective for adults, but it also seemed to appeal to many of the kids, who completed workouts that would have “broken” many of the older and more experienced traceurs that I’ve trained with over the past year.  The interesting thing was that to these kids, this sort of training was hard, but not discounted as useless “overexercise”, as I have seen in a number of situations where people are faced with these daunting workouts without understanding the long-term benefits.  While I’m sure that the Streetcamp participants are a self-selective group, I think that it is also promising for the next generations of traceurs.

A highlight reel of the event made by Nicholas Bluff.