We didn't make this up. Our university happens to be based in the safest city of its size in America. So we wondered, given all this safety: are there stories to be told, people to contemplate, risks to be taken? Find out alongside our blog's authors -- two sections of a journalism reporting class whose goal is to show people at work and at play in and around Irvine, Calif. We invite you to read the articles below.









Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Jump First, Ask Questions Later": The Urban Ninjas of UCI

The phone rings.

“Free running and Parkour Club at UCI?”

A deep, computerized voice speaks out in response. “Parkour club, we are in need of your services again. Someone has kidnapped Peter the Anteater. We need to get him home now. Spirit Week is less than 24 hours away. Get him back before then.”

“Got it. Will do” he says, confident and self-assured.

And so the chase begins; the captors are sprinting across campus, carrying their “captive” as they leap over staircases and vault themselves over railings, all while being followed by an eager cameraman, documenting this cat and mouse chase. The man in blue jumps over two flights of stairs, arms spread like a flying squirrel midair. Our hero chases after him, dodging over rails and fences like an Olympic track star.

The man in blue and his cohort approach a wall that would seemingly stop them in their tracks. He keeps running till his feet are half way up the wall; he manages a complete back-flip over our hero, who follows the man in blue after being momentarily thrown off-course by this evasive maneuver. Still being chased, the man in blue vaults over a cement block and launches into a tumble roll, landing and then jumping over another massive flight of stairs and landing in a somersault.

He darts through Aldrich Park, making his way to Langson Library. Ducking under a cement railing and hoisting himself onto the balcony surrounding the library, the man in blue and his cohort jump once more, almost leaving the hero in the dust.

They make their way across the uneven stairs of Social Sciences Plaza, meeting in the middle as their captive exchanges hands. Our hero catches up with them, only to realize the cohort is no longer holding the victim. He swivels and sees the man in blue taunting him, dangling the captive anteater in his hand; he follows him into the nearby parking structure, avoiding the stairs and climbing up the walls to get to the roof. Finally, our hero has the two captors cornered; teetering dangerously along the edge of the roof, the man in blue and his cohort surrender and relinquish the kidnapped Peter the Anteater to the hero.

Sound like a scene from a new action movie set in Irvine? Not quite. This is just a taste of what the members of the Freerunning and Parkour Club of UCI are up to. The heroes and villains here are Chris Sequeira (the hero), Anthony Sweeting (the “man in blue”), and Adrian Ortiz (the cohort) the club’s members and co-founders, and the “captive” is just a small stuffed anteater. They were filming a promotional video to be played at the upcoming UCI Spirit Week festivities (a video which has already gained over 400 views on YouTube).

For these three students, the UC Irvine campus has become a (somewhat) urban playground for this risky sport. This high-flying, adrenaline pumping discipline that incorporates acrobatic feats with track and field can now be seen being practiced on our campus.

Parkour, this French creation originating in the 1980’s, in its simplest definition is the act of moving from one point to another while using the obstacles in the environment to increase efficiency. When combined with the aerial and acrobatic stunts of freerunning (a subset of parkour,) you get modern-day freerunning and parkour (FRPK). Parkour is noncompetitive, and can be practiced anywhere; it requires physical fitness, agility, creativity, and excellent reflexes. It incorporates jumping, running, vaulting, sliding, hanging and swinging into one fluid motion, where the only objective is to get from point A to point B in the most creative way possible. The objective of parkour and freerunning is to adapt one’s body to any environment to be able to pass obstacles and hurdles as quickly and efficiently as possible; it is a rejection of typical means of training the human body and of mainstream physical activities. When traceurs (practitioners of parkour) find themselves facing an obstacle, they keep running, never ceasing the fluid motion that gets them to their destination. It’s a “jump first, ask questions later” mentality in the world of parkour.

The excitement of watching and practicing parkour is indescribable, and the risk of bodily harm is ever present, but that doesn’t deter fans from leaping across buildings and swinging from railings as they run across their landscape.

The parkour phenomenon has grown in recent years, mainly due to films like Casino Royale, and videogames like Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia, which feature extreme action sequences that are based entirely off of freerunning and parkour. With the ease and accessibility of YouTube, people around the world have taken to the internet to view homemade videos of traceurs in action, allowing parkour fans to share their techniques and tricks with others.

While FRPK is popular in Europe and other locales with complex, intricate urban skylines, it’s hard to imagine this sort of athletic rebellion finding its roots in a place like Irvine, a city that was planned down to every last perfectly manicured shrub and hedge. That doesn’t stop the founders of the FRPK club at UCI from transforming the always predictable landscape into a maze of obstacles.

Beginnings

Chris Sequeira, president and cofounder of the FRPK club, was determined to create an environment on his campus where he could practice parkour with others; “The idea for starting the club came from wanting to create a safe supportive and fun environment for people who are interested in practicing parkour to actually practice it, because it is risky. On the West coast, the buildings are spread out and everything is a lot more spread out, so it’s really hard to figure out where you can do it, but I figured that together we could think and find places and really collaborate and work on creating this safe, fun environment.”

It was in 2010 when Sequeira and co-founder Adrian Ortiz met at an event on campus; they got to talking and realized there shared interest in parkour, and decided to found their club. Treasurer Anthony Sweeting met Sequeira at a group interview for a scholarship; when Chris mentioned his interest in starting a parkour organization at UCI, Sweeting had to interrupt him to show he was interested. “It was rude and awkward, and I didn’t get the scholarship,” says Sweeting, “but Chris did.”

FRPK is just one of Sequeira’s many on-campus involvements. As a transfer student, Sequeira believes in making the most of his time at university, and he does that throwing himself into a multitude of campus activities.As he rattles off the list of clubs and activities, one can’t help but wonder how he finds time for any of this. It’s hard to imagine a busy overachiever like Chris throwing himself into something as wild as parkour. His focus, upbeat energy, high spirits, and commitment all shine through when seeing him in action. Sequeira is undoubtedly the leader of the group; while the passion and talent may be present within the group’s members, it’s his leadership and organization that made FRPK into a legitimate organization.

Anthony brings a more laidback element of effortless cool to the duo. He attacks these vaults and jumps with the ease and precision of a cat. He has a perpetual toothy grin on his face, and when he perches atop a railing during practice, he seems as comfortable as the Cheshire cat in a tree. While Chris’ body is firm and somewhat stuff, Anthony is more languid in his movements, his body constantly in a slightly swaying motion, even when seated.

“I was doing parkour before it was called parkour,” says Anthony, who recounts jumping apartment building rooftops in Burbank as a kid to avoid doing his homework. “My inspiration to jump around on stuff was Jackie Chan, so through him I got into martial arts tricks and flipping and handstands. People always thought I was a showoff at lunchtime because I did handstands the whole time, I didn’t care who was watching.” Then after stumbling upon the Yamakasi (a French parkour group) on the internet one day, he realized that parkour was a worldwide phenomenon and not just a juvenile distraction from schoolwork.

Parkour was an accidental discovery for Sequeira as well; “In 2007, I was in a French class, and there was a French film based almost solely on parkour called District B13 and my friend had my watch that movie and I was thinking, ‘Man that is so cool!’ That really got me into it. David Belle, the founder of parkour is actually the star of the movie, and that made it really easy for me to research it. Since then I’ve been trying to keep in shape, even though I didn’t know where I could practice it, just in case the day came. It was around that time, my friends and I did some running and jumped over a few things, nothing really intense like this club is doing. That was the first time I ever had any really hands-on experience with it; this club has really exploded the possibilities for us.”

Creating an organization devoted to practicing parkour was the logical first step for Sequeira. After registering in November with the Dean of Students, the Parkour and Freerunning Club became an official UCI campus organization on December 1st, 2010. As a campus organization, they are faced with issues of liability, which is more than just an afterthought when you club’s main purpose is to jump across 6-story gaps and run across campus at breakneck speeds. Every member signs a liability waiver that protects the campus from legal action if a member of the club were to get injured in action.

Injuries are something unavoidable in parkour, regardless of one’s skill level. “I know that the first time I got hurt really badly was when I tried to jump across this 8 foot wide gap;” says Chris. “There were two big cement planters with straight edges, I ran along the edge of one and jumped to the other, and one foot made it across but the other didn’t quite make it. I scraped up my shin pretty bad; I had a scar that was a good three inches long on my leg for a few years.”

Far more serious injuries are always a risk; in September of 2009, a Sacramento boy fell to his death from a parking garage while supposedly practicing parkour. In 2007 a student at the University of Illinois fell from a television tower and was also suspected to have been practicing parkour. In 2006 a British teenager fell to his death while leaning over the edge of a building evaluating a jump. Its incidents like these that cause concerned adults and parents to worry about the safety of parkour.

“There really isn't a way to do parkour ‘safely’,” Chris warns. “But taking things as slowly as you need to at first then working up comfortably with the moves is the best way to minimize chance of injury. One of the key points that I emphasize in the meetings is that if a person is not comfortable with trying a move, then they are in no way obligated to try it. I also make sure to let them know to try things at their own pace. Injuries are inevitable, but it's the same thing as when you get a poor grade on a test or something you cook doesn't come out the way you wanted - it was an attempt and you can learn from your mistakes. As I've mentioned before it's about overcoming obstacles and approaching challenges instead of shying away from them. ”

As the popularity of the sport grows amongst the youth, so do efforts to control it. The lack of rules and regulations that can intimidate and frighten skeptical adults is often what attracts people to parkour. Parkour is part of the “alternative sport culture” that doesn’t embrace fixed rules and competition like mainstream sports (that isn’t to say they lack the self-discipline of any professional athlete; they take practicing and improvement very seriously) Many traceurs reject other sports as being “overregulated” or “contrived,” and embrace the pure creativity and fluid, freeform nature of parkour. As for regulation from the UCI authorities, the FRPK club hasn’t encountered any problems yet when it comes to using the campus as the training grounds for potentially harmful exercises.

The parkour culture is one completely unto its own; it has its own language and uniform, but remains open to any and all brave enough to try. The terminology used to describe various moves is their own unique slang (try the "cat crawl," the "lazy vault," the "king kong vault," the "thief," and the "tic tac"; they're are all terms used to describe basic FRPK movements). The FRPK community is small but inclusive. While other competitive, mainstream sports are commercialized and marketed for profit, parkour remains pure. Parkour has no Kobe Bryant or Roger Federer; it’s simply not about celebrity. The lifestyle of a serious traceur is akin to that of graffiti artists; they practice what they love under constant threat of legal consequences, gritty urban landscapes are their havens, and they have both created a community that thrives on sharing experiences, rather than one-upmanship.Parkour seeks to establish chaos and harmony at once; traceurs try to make their body one with the environment by adapting to its surfaces while moving from place to place, while freerunning adds the sporadic danger of acrobatic stunts into the mix. These stunts have caused traceurs to be labeled as menaces to society, juvenile delinquents, and dangerous rebels.

But rebellion against authority is the essence of parkour; rebelling against the defined boundaries of society, of the landscape, and of the law. In a place like Irvine, where students get ticketed for riding bikes, parkour is the ultimate defiance of the rules; “When you walk in a crowd, you see everyone moseying along like a herd of cattle, so I still try to keep my mind open about the environment and so maybe, I see an open path that goes around and no one is using it, I’ll just go that way, and as I go around I’ll see something else new” says Chris. “It’s really all about keeping a sharp mind about the dynamic environment around you and trying new things, seeing new places”. Traceurs like Chris, Adrian and Anthony are urban explorers, and while Orange County may not be Manhattan or downtown Los Angeles, it is what they have to work with.

Currently, the FRPK club is comprised of the founding members and board members; Chris, Adrian and Anthony. They are open to any and all interested members who are willing to try, regardless of skill level or experience. The last quarter has been a process of advertising and publicity for the club, and they have gotten some interested students to check them out, but the three core members remain the active participants.

But their popularity is growing and interest has been piqued around campus; it’s hard to ignore them, as they climb up staircase railings and dash between obstacles at Social Sciences Plaza or use the parking structures as testing grounds for their moves, where they practice every week. It’s at these practices (or “jams,” as they’re called in the parkour world) that the amateur traceurs test their physical limits.

Practice

It’s a hot, Saturday afternoon in early March. Chris and Anthony are getting ready for meeting, warming up and jogging under the glaring sun. Today’s location is Social Sciences Parking Structure, 6 floors that provide a perfect backdrop to their routines. Every other weekend the officers meet in these sessions to prepare for the next weeks general meeting. During this jam, they practice a variety of moves, testing out new maneuvers and making sure they can achieve them safely, so they can teach them to any new members without risk of injury. An average jam can last a half-hour or more; “It all depends on what you’re doing and the intensity,” says Chris.

Their quick warm-up ends and Anthony is already up and away, as he climbs up to the roof by sliding in between the railings of the staircase, avoiding the steps completely, scaling the distance with the tenacity of a small monkey. On the roof, Chris jumps up on the ledge, walking with a gymnasts balance. He attacks these movements with determination and a drive to succeed, even after repeated failure or injury. In these moments, his rigidity seems to melt away, allowing him to embody the fluidity and adaptability of a real traceur’s body.

“You know, it’s kind of ironic that I do all this parkour stuff, because I'm afraid of heights,” says Chris, a surprising fact to hear from someone standing 6 stories above the ground. “Looking over this ledge right now makes my legs go wobbly, and crossing tall gaps always gives me a little hesitation.”

They work their way over to a railing about 4 feet tall that overlooks a gap that separates the structure right down the middle. Anthony, the more daring of the duo when it comes to heights, jumps over the railing, grasping the bar as his body dangles six stories above the ground; he extends his leg to see if he could reach the next floor down in one leap, but hesitates. He pushes his legs up till both feet are planted firmly against the wall; he does a shuffle against the wall until he finally swings himself safely over the side.

Chris takes a seat on the rail, his feet dangling above the gap. A look of hesitation and contemplation spreads across his face. Mustering up his bravery, he stands and leaps across the gap, a distance of approximately five feet; at first he has one foot on each side, legs spread as if about to do the splits. Seeming almost stuck wavering above the gap, he manages to get both feet onto the opposite railing and onto the ground.“I think that’s enough of that,” he chuckles nervously afterwards.

Chris and Anthony then take to running around the roof of the parking structure, sprinting and leaping over rails and cement blocks. In unison, they run across the lot, hoisting themselves over 10 foot tall cement blocks. Anthony casually sits atop one of the tall cement rails as Chris runs towards a metal rail, plants his hands and spins over the barrier. Anthony lies down atop the block, his head dangling off one side; he slowly hangs farther and farther down till his legs come over his head in a perfect flip. He lands, runs across the lot and does a cat vault over another block, lands in a somersault and runs towards us with a look of casual confidence on his face.

Chris admits that Anthony is physically more skilled than him at parkour, but he sees the relationship as a team, rather than a competitive race. Chris is more an admirer of Anthony than a competitor. “The way I see it, I have the vision, and he has the drive, the agility, the flexibility to really make it seem like everything is possible. I can’t do half the stuff he does, so it’s nice to have someone so flexible to do it.”

At one point during the practice, as Chris attempts to hoist himself over a cement wall, his foot slips and gets caught in a gap between the two walls; his hands lose grip of the top of the wall, and he lands squarely on his behind, his leg still stuck. He shakes it off quickly, not wanting to dwell on the pain, laughing and grimacing all at once. “Oh it’s definitely going to hurt tomorrow.”

“Is it worth it?” I ask him. “Absolutely,” he says. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”

It’s no surprise to see the lengths Chris, Adrian, and Anthony will go to when it comes to FRPK; “It gets the adrenaline pumping, and you just feel so unrestrained and unlimited in what you can do; even accomplishing a small trick, one of hundreds of moves, one that’s not even the most daring or scary still gives a huge amount of satisfaction” says Adrian.

For Adrian, Chris, and Anthony, FRPK is about more than thrill-chasing or physical training—it’s also about re-evaluating the everyday environment and keeping the mind sharp; “I think we’re forced to believe that certain things have to be certain things, like stairs are just stairs and elevators are just elevators, walls are just walls,” says Adrian. “In parkour, things don’t have to just be those things. It’s about using these objects in the environment in ways that normally would not think to be used. It’s about breaking these hard definitions and re-sculpting them and making them versatile functions that you can use. Once you start getting into this thing you’re always thinking about how else you can move around and beat the crowd and go in a straight line.”

In the end, parkour is whatever the individual traceur wants it to be: it can be a thrilling adrenaline rush, an exercise in training your muscles, a physical outlet for the everyday frustrations, or just an excuse to act out your James Bond action fantasies.

“It’s exhilarating and exciting, and yeah, sometimes I fall, whatever, but it’s so exciting and fun. It gets my heart racing” says Chris. "I feel like I'm really accomplishing something, like I’m really getting over my obstacles; instead of just moving past things like you do in everyday life, when I jump over things it feels like I'm conquering that obstacle, and I can really just put it behind me. It sounds kind of cheesy but hey, try it some time and you’ll see what I mean."




Reporting Notes:

  • One 30 minute interview with Chris Sequeira and Adrian Ortiz

· One 1-hour interview with Chris Sequeira and Anthony Sweeting

· One 30-minute practice observation

· One 1-hour practice observation

· Sources:

· http://www.wfpf.com/contents/view/13

· http://www.americanparkour.com/

· http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEeqHj3Nj2c&feature=related

http://sportandmotor.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/How_Parkour_works_SnM_thumb.jpg

· Parkour, by Dan Edwardes

· Deviance and Social Control in Sport, by Michael Atkinson and Kevin Young

· "A Concrete Plan for Urban Fitness" by Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times, January 7th, 2009.

· Teen who fell to death was fan of jumping-vaulting sport—Elk Grove boy may have been practicing, authorities say” by Peter Hecht, The Sacramento Bee, October 1st, 2009.

· “PATH LESS TRAVELED - PARKOUR GIVES LOCAL TEENAGERS BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF SURROUNDINGS” by James Burns, The Merced Sun-Star,Saturday, August 16, 2008

· “The Free Runner” by Sam Whiting, The San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2007.

· “Navigating Cityscapes in Leaps and Bounds” by Edward Hershey, The Oregonian, June 28, 2007.

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