Once there was a teenage boy in Boca Raton who climbed a tall fence and scuttled onto the roof of his house. He was with his friend, Eduardo Tapia, and the two sat perched on the edge of the roof for half an hour. They stared at the grass below, trying to get the nerve to jump.
Finally, Gabriel Bonfim took a deep breath and popped over the side, falling 7 feet to the ground below. He landed uninjured, adrenaline pumping, and turned to look back up Eduardo.
Jason Vetere, 16, of Boca Raton leaps from near the landing of stairs behind a shopping plaza. Several young men were practicing parkour, an urban sport that is growing in popularity. The goal is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, no matter what obstacles are in the way. A parkour co-founder will appear in the latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale.
Marc Breslofsky, 15, nails the landing of a leap from handrail to handrail. The teens say the sport teaches fearlessness.
Gabriel Bonfim tries to scale a wall. After a couple of attempts he found a way up. He was with a group of teens practicing parkour. A Web site serving parkour participants has had 110,000 visitors since it was born six months ago.
The die had been cast. The gauntlet had fallen. Eduardo wasn't getting off the roof by any other means.
So, there he went, over the side, dropping like a stone, landing — smack! — in the grass.
... And now we must pause to say that these boys weren't using illicit drugs.
They were, perhaps, high on life, on danger, on doing things they didn't think they could. In that same jazzed-up, euphoric, caffeine-like state, they scaled the fence, got on the roof and jumped, again and again.
And so it started. Four months later, they're with a group of nine other teenagers behind a Boca Raton movie theater. It's a Saturday afternoon. There aren't any girls around. Just this pack of lean guys coiled up like springs; loud voices; loud laughs; energy coming off them like electricity.
Marc Breslofsky, 15, steps up to a pole, grabs it with both hands and lifts his legs until they're parallel to the ground. He's sprawled out like Superman. He does handstands on generators, leaps back and forth between waist-high handrails, gets down on all fours, walking like a cat on another rail. Jason Vetere, 16, climbs straight up a lone support pole on a fire escape until he reaches the second landing 25 feet above the ground. At the top, he vaults over the handrail onto the landing (and a reporter lets out a small sigh of relief). Later, he leaps down 12 steps, running off his momentum on the hard pavement.
"I think your parents had a threesome with a monkey," one of the teens says to Jason.
That passes as a compliment in this particular circle.
Call them crazy. Call them idiots. Call them "extreme walkers," "free runners," primates. Tell them they're asking to get hurt. Say they're going to end up in a wheelchair, or they'll bust their teeth out. It's really quite OK. They've heard it all before.
They're practicing parkour (French for "obstacle course"), a little-known urban sport. And how wearisome it all gets having to explain it to outsiders again and again. Practitioners call themselves traceurs, a term of debated origin (some say it stems from special tracer bullets that glow in flight, allowing shooters to see bullet trajectories).
Parkour has a general philosophy: Turn yourself into water. Traceurs want to go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, no matter what obstacles are in their way. They may have to leap off a roof, vault a handrail, jump a planter full of pretty flowers, but on they go, rolling with the environment, never stopping that forward momentum. Pushing, pulling, climbing, leaping, falling, sprinting, standing, sliding, still going.
Mark Toorock, founder of AmericanParkour.com, estimates there are 40,000 traceurs worldwide, most of them between ages 13 and 26. The sport's infectious, spreading, sucking in new traceurs, with Toorock's site serving 110,000 visitors since it was born six months ago.
But it's not a new trend, Toorock says. It's just a reawakening of what's already inside people.
"It's innate," says Toorock, who splits his time between Jersey City and Washington, D.C. "People are mammals.... We still eat, poop, breathe — we're still animals, and we need to run, jump, play, climb, experience things. That's what we need to be doing, not sitting in front of a machine so people can pump messages into your brain to go buy more Coca-Cola."
We have so many mental hang-ups, Toorock says, so many fears and social restrictions, which we often refuse to question. Consider a table, Toorock says. A four-legged piece of furniture topped by a flat, horizontal plane. Most of us are physically capable of jumping onto the table, but somehow it feels wrong.
"It's our mind that holds us back," Toorock says. "People are led by fear. Often it forces (them) into inaction."
More and more, he sounds like Morpheus from The Matrix.
"By learning through physical action to overcome some of these obstacles," he says, " maybe some of these fears that we have —these other things — can be overcome with our minds."
If he's Morpheus, then fledgling roof-jumpers like Eduardo are little Neos — young parkour protégés trying to understand themselves, their physical limitations, their abilities. It's something Eduardo, who started practicing parkour four months ago, thinks he'll do for a long time.
"It's just a thing that has changed my life so much," he says.
He was never aware of his environment before, he says. He'd walk somewhere, but register nothing. Now, he's looking, looking at that set of stairs, that handrail ... that table. He's aware of his environment. There is no obstacle — physical or mental — that's too big to be considered. And slowly, that lack of physical inhibitions trickles into other aspects of his life.
"Maybe a kid is scared to ask a girl out or something like that," Eduardo says, "but if you can jump from roof to roof without getting hurt, asking a girl out is a piece of cake."
He's proof of that, quietly admitting that he's asked at least one girl out since he started parkour.
There is a hallowed name spoken among young traceurs, and it is David Belle. Belle started doing parkour during the late-'80s. Google him, watch videos, see this man who looks like he's made of carbon fiber take off his shirt, sprint and leap off of one rooftop to another far below. See him twist his body and roll (still shirtless) just after impact. Watch him pop back up and keep sprinting, unfazed, unhurt, no signs of slowing.
With a background in martial arts, acrobatics and military training, Belle — inspired by his father, Raymond — has helped turn the sport into a discipline. Listen to his followers, and they'll tell you parkour is a way of life. It's a never-ending search for "stillness of mind."
Toorock calls it "flow"; the same state Olympic athletes speak of.
"It's mental. You practice physical movements to the point where it's all in your mind," Toorock says. "Your body just does what it needs to get there."
An explanatory essay on Toorock's site reads something like a Buddhist text: "The state of mind isn't a matter of some instant transformation mid-technique, but rather a product of diligently applying a state of mindfulness to all training, and eventually, all of your everyday life. ... (At that point) we will truly understand the goal of Parkour: to create endless opportunities for progress where others see only obstacles." Media is catching on. The latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale, which is due out later this year, will feature one of parkour's co-founders, Sebastien Foucan, playing a terrorist pursued by Bond (with some of the scenes unfolding atop a crane).
But parkour's not all about flashy, death-defying leaps. It's baby steps for young traceurs. And they get help from a handful of Web sites that meticulously describe parkour techniques. Traceurs learn to minimize impacts, how to roll on the ground (twisting to the side so their spinal columns don't touch). They learn to eat right, stretch, train.
"Some of the things that we're eventually going to be jumping off of," says 16-year-old traceur Brendan Griffith of Boca Raton, "are going to be, like, extremely high for the normal human body to withstand."
So they start, as everyone must, at the beginning.
The teenage traceurs in Boca Raton have a name for their clique: Zero Gravity. With 10 to 12 members, they organize meets or jams most weekends through their Web site, www.zerogravitypkf.tk. Transportation is a problem since many don't have their licenses yet.
"My parents don't think I'm responsible enough," one says.
But they're already talking about future trips to Miami. Maybe even a senior trip to some far-flung locale like Brazil or France.
The police have chased them out of some of the prime Boca Raton locations (this town's too stuck up for parkour, they say), so they're relegated to roads less traveled: the backs of shops, Dumpsters, tall ledges and stairs that lead to unused doors. Still, on a recent Saturday, passersby behind a Boca Raton movie theater paused to gawk.
"What are you doing?" they ask.
Alexander Patsy, one of the group's founders, stops to explain it again, waving his hands, which are wrapped in a pair of weight-lifting gloves.
"Basically, you adapt the human body to get out of any given situation," he says. "Like Point A to Point B without stopping, getting over every obstacle only using yourself."
The first time he ventured out to try parkour was four months ago. He didn't attempt a single trick, but, when he tried it a day or two later, something clicked.
"I felt it, that I overcame a fear. And then, I just, like... you get used to it," he says. "(Now), if I'm scared to do something, I can make myself want to do it, and do it."
There haven't been any big injuries in the group yet — just scrapes, bumps and bruises, normal boy stuff, one supposes. But Alexander says it's something all the guys in the group have talked about. They decided in the beginning there wouldn't be any lawsuits. (Of course, their parents' take on that may differ.) And parkour Web sites frequently post prominent disclaimers: "Participate at your own risk!" they say, or, we assume "no liability or responsibility for your actions."
Worldwide, at least one death has been attributed to parkour. In August, a 14-year-old British skateboarder — who, according to some reports, had been smoking marijuana — fell off a roof while peering over the edge to evaluate a jump. "Parkour is about starting off very small and practicing the basics and working within your limits," Toorock says. He knows of at least one broken leg attributed to the sport, and another death that occurred while a man tried a roof jump while intoxicated.
The Boca teens know the risks, they say, and they're prepared to accept them (even though Alexander says if something does happen, he'll probably tell his mom — who isn't a big parkour fan — that he "slipped on a banana peel or something").
"Most people think that when you're doing it, you're, like, crazy and you're asking to get hurt," Alexander says. "Like, yeah, I know it is dangerous and you can get hurt, but to me, honestly, I feel like the only way you can get severely, severely hurt is if you just do it carelessly. Like you just wake up one day and jump a building."
Of course, that's exactly what they want to do. They want to remove their shirts, sprint toward the edge of the roof and leap. They want to hit the pavement, roll, and keep going. On and on forever. Only their minds, they believe, will stop them.