The world Ryan Ford inhabits looks very different than the one most of us live in.
Ours has boundaries, limits, margins and finite possibilities. Our daily paths are delineated by sidewalks and stairwells, corralled by guardrails and building walls. We take this confinement blithely, rarely venturing onto any surface that's not parallel with the horizon or more than a few inches off the ground.
Ford doesn't see these restrictions. For him, guardrails and building walls are at least as useful as sidewalks and stairwells. While others walk around the barriers in their way, he's more likely to vault over them. While we've been taught to steer clear of sharp drops, Ford can leap right off the edge and onto a nearby ledge. Then he can continue on, never breaking his stride, bounding off pillars, running sideways across walls and scurrying up girders.
Over the past five years, Ford has trained his 22-year-old body to do these things, throwing himself so intensely into the discipline of parkour — the art of moving from one place to the next as fluidly and efficiently as possible — that he's now one of the top devotees of it in the world. But he knows that parkour takes more than the chiseled quads and ripped biceps beneath his loose-fitting wind pants and T-shirt. He's also had to train his mind, to reboot his perspective so that he can see all the conduits and challenges and puzzles the physical world has to offer.
Take, for example, the concrete fountain in Skyline Park, where Ford is currently standing with his friend and business partner, 25-year-old Matt Marshall. Most Denverites hardly give this reddish-brown jumble of concrete blocks and towers a second thought as they stroll by or stop for a cigarette break. And while the fountain's nearly always bone-dry, most civilized adults would never think to walk on it, much less leap off of it.
To Ford and Marshall, however, it's a concrete smorgasbord of gorgeous platforms and surfaces, one that offers up unending combinations of sprints, leaps and vaults. It's as though the fountain were lined with ribbons tracing all the free-flowing routes they could take, ribbons only they can see. "Boom!" exclaims Marshall, spreading his arms wide. "It's like a fucking Christmas present. There are so many things you can do."
Thanks to this fountain and other celebrated parkour hot spots like Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the University of Colorado at Boulder campus, Colorado has become a destination for the parkour community across the country and beyond. The fountain has even earned a nickname, "Precision Fountain," because it's perfect for precision jumps, a parkour technique involving leaping from one object to a precise spot on another.
And Ford and Marshall have become young leaders in the very young discipline. They've been teaching parkour classes for years and lead a thriving local organization called Colorado Parkour, or COPK. Ford has been featured on ESPN and in the New Yorker, and the two have performed at parkour events the world over.
In April, they made their most audacious move yet, opening APEX Movement, a parkour gym in a warehouse they're leasing at 2250 Lawrence Street. It's one of the only parkour gyms in the world — and the largest.
But now isn't the time to be thinking about those things. Instead, Ford needs total focus as he prepares to hit a precision jump, one he's never tried before.
He stands on a block near the upper edge of Precision Fountain, eyeing a platform roughly fourteen feet away and four feet below. He's been gauging this jump for a while, drawn by his own trepidation. Although Ford has made longer leaps before, this one has some unusual challenges. If he stumbles on takeoff or undershoots the jump, there are all those unforgiving concrete corners and edges waiting down below. And even if he does land the jump, he'll have to control his forward momentum so he doesn't tumble head-first off the chessboard-sized platform. A few years ago, Ford clipped his foot on a different fountain jump just a few feet away and separated his shoulder.
"It's a little bit scary," he says, which is exactly why he wants to do it. Parkour is a mental discipline along the lines of the martial arts, in which the goal is to overcome not just physical obstacles, but mental ones as well — personal fears and limitations.
Ford squints and frowns, considering the empty space beyond his toes. He turns around and walks several yards back through the grassy park, then practices his takeoff in slow motion. Unlike Marshall, who's a little more daring with his parkour exploits, Ford carefully analyzes his moves. Sometimes, he admits, he may overthink things.
"All right, here I go," he announces, jumping in place to warm up as Marshall offers an encouraging cheer from the sidelines. Then Ford's off. Faster and faster he sprints across the grass, the fountain looming up to meet him. At the last possible moment, he plants his foot on the cement and swings his other leg skyward.
Practitioners of parkour are called traceurs (women, though rare, are called traceuses) because they're tracing the footsteps of parkour pioneer David Belle. While growing up in the early 1990s in a Parisian suburb, Belle began creating his own variations on gymnastics, martial arts and exercise techniques. Others joined him, and a philosophy evolved. Belle and his compatriots began performing, and the films they made with handheld cameras earned them roles in French action flicks such as District B13.
Now even more people are tracing the footsteps of Belle disciples like Ford and Marshall, though their footsteps aren't easy to follow.
During a Monday-evening class, a dozen or so students race across the floor of the cavernous warehouse space at APEX Movement. They're here for the first session of a five-week, ten-class parkour training program, a regimen that will set them back $150 — though some might not make it all the way. Back and forth they sprint, alternating grueling exercises with each lap. On one circuit, they kick their knees up to their stomachs; on the next, they run backwards.
If they hope to make a splash in the Colorado parkour scene, they'd better get used to physical exertion: Some of the most popular Colorado Parkour online videos are "conditioning gauntlets" featuring nothing but traceurs using their physical environment for super-sized push-ups, backward crawls up stairwells and other excruciating drills.
When everyone is thoroughly winded, Marshall addresses the class. "My name is Matt," he says. "People may know me and Ryan from the Internet."
While parkour gained fame thanks to the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, which showcased a sustained parkour chase scene culminating in a jaw-dropping leap from a crane, the discipline's development owes more to the numerous homemade videos traceurs post online, especially on YouTube. While it's nearly impossible to accurately describe the concept in words, clips of a parking-garage steeplechase or a chain of balcony-to-balcony long jumps perfectly capture its eloquence and energy.
These thrilling videos are also the perfect marketing campaign for APEX Movement — because who doesn't want to be Spiderman?
But while a cardboard cutout of the web-slinger greets visitors near APEX's entrance, Marshall has some bad news for first-timers at the class who are eager to scale skyscrapers: There will be no death-defying tricks learned here today.
Instead, he explains, the class will be largely dedicated to push-ups, pull-ups and long jumps. "Know your limits," he warns them and then hands an ice pack to a guy who looks on the verge of passing out. "We want to make sure you come back."
If they do return, these students will eventually learn how to do "tic-tacs" off the six-foot-tall wooden crates positioned around the gym, bounding off the surfaces like pinballs ricocheting off bumpers. They'll scramble up and down the metal scaffolding and perform nearly horizontal under-bar dives through its railings. They'll slingshot through ad hoc obstacle courses made up of springboards, truck tires, balance beams and a gymnastics high bar that's been flipped upside down and fastened to the ceiling.
They'll have to forget all the physical hangups they've acquired growing up and get as loose and flexible as they were when they were kids goofing around on a jungle gym. It's like playing jazz, says Ford, borrowing a metaphor used by one of the reporters who's interviewed him. "First you learn to play the notes, and then you learn to play the song," he says. "And then you forget all that and you just play."
Playtime in parkour is hard to beat, says Carolynn Grigsby, a seventeen-year-old Boulder High School student who's been taking classes with Ford and Marshall since 2006, when she dropped her longtime gymnastics training for parkour.
"I enjoyed gymnastics, but it was competitive, and I didn't like that," she says. She much prefers parkour, since the only competition is personal — whether or not she can overcome her own fears and pull off her favorite movements, like a rail precision, which is a flying leap that ends with her balanced on a beam. "I have tried stuff in the classes I would never have done on my own," she says. "The feeling you get when you overcome something in parkour, I never really got in gymnastics."
In the process, Grigsby has rolled an ankle and hurt her wrist, but "nothing super-serious," she says. Ford and Marshall, who are both First Aid-certified, essentially guarantee that students like Grigsby will sprain an ankle sooner or later. And despite the cringe-inducing online videos of parkour mistakes and the news reporters who've predicted teenagers will fall to their doom, APEX's founders say that parkour done correctly is no more dangerous than a high-school track meet.
"Football and cheerleading, those are the most dangerous sports," says Ford. "They are way more dangerous than parkour."
Ford should know. He grew up in Golden playing soccer, track and football.
"He was always very athletic," says his mother, Teresa. "He likes to tell people that the day he started walking was the day he started to run. He was little, but always self-assured. He's not a follow-the-group type person. If all his friends did one thing and he didn't care for it, he didn't do it. But he had to wait until he found the right thing."
Ford found that thing during his junior year in high school when he happened upon online videos of David Belle, such as the famous "SpeedAirMan," in which Belle scampers up and down a 75-foot climbing wall as if rigged up on trick wires. Ford was so taken with the concept that he quit the sports teams he was on to focus on it. And when he couldn't find a local parkour organization, he started his own: COPK. "Parkour is going to blow up," he told his parents. "You just wait and see."
He was right: It did blow up, and he was in the middle of it. In 2005, Ford, then a freshman at CU-Boulder, was recruited to be one of the founding members of the Tribe, a promotional parkour team launched by Washington, D.C.-based Mark Toorock, who's credited with bringing parkour to the United States.
Toorock, who owns the company American Parkour, calls Ford one of the best traceurs in the country: "It's easy to think that some people have a genetic advantage or are freaks of nature or are super-strong, but it's not that for him. He just trains constantly. Hard, diligent training, and that's what makes him excellent at what he does."
Soon Toorock was sending national reporters to Boulder to interview the promising traceur in between Ford's excursions to Hawaii, Beijing and Beirut for Tribe performances. In the meantime, Ford began teaching parkour classes with Marshall at the Spot Bouldering Gym in Boulder and then at Gym Riki in Denver.
Last year, the two even ran a five-day training course for a team of U.S. soldiers, though they're not allowed to discuss the specifics of the program.
Ford could have coasted a bit on the sizable earnings — and fame — he garnered from these ventures, traveling the world, landing a few more sponsorship deals (like the one the Tribe has with K-Swiss). He knows people who've done this, like Tribe teammate and APEX investor Will Schultz, who's living off the income he made doing parkour-related consulting and stunts for the Will Smith movie I Am Legend.
But as Ford's parkour training has taught him, there are infinite paths he can take. "I do some performances and stuff like that, but to me, that's not the future of parkour," he explains. "That's not sustainable. I could do Tribe stuff and compete for, I don't know, maybe ten more years."
No, in order to be a part of parkour forever, he wants to spread the wealth; he wants to train people. "For a while now, I think parkour has been associated with spectacle and glamour and movies, all this big crazy stuff," he says. "I would rather see it marketed to everybody."
Matt Marshall found his way into parkour thanks to the one time in his life when he was not moving. Not moving, as in dead. Well, sort of dead.
During a harrowing exercise with the famously intense United States Air Force Pararescue training program in Texas, Marshall spent a couple minutes too long at the bottom of a pool. He stopped breathing, blacked out — kaput.
"I actually, like, drowned," Marshall says with the cool intensity with which he does most things. Luckily, he was "in the best place to drown in the entire world," surrounded by highly trained rescue personnel who quickly resuscitated him.
The experience convinced him that he wasn't cut out for such work. So Marshall packed his bags and returned to his home state, where he enrolled in Metropolitan State College of Denver's exercise science degree program. He soon discovered a new way to channel his boundless energy, courtesy of parkour videos he found online. Here was a pursuit where he could use all the skills he'd learned as a life-long gymnast, as well as the discipline he'd acquired from martial arts classes and military training.
"The philosophy for parkour is moving through your environment quickly and efficiently. But to do parkour, to live parkour, it's this never-ending pursuit of supreme physical readiness by improving gradually every day from where you were before," he says. "It's perfect. I want to do this forever."
Marshall found Ford's Colorado Parkour online and hit it off with its founder. He and Ford practiced together at local jams, which is what traceurs call parkour meet-ups. They whiled away their mutual insomnia by beating each other at 2 a.m. online Scrabble games. Marshall didn't mind that Ford got most of the limelight; as his wife, Carissa, puts it, "I've never seen them competitive or jealous of one another. They kind of do their own thing. The only competition they have is against themselves."
Once the two began teaching classes, they started talking about someday opening their own gym. The plan was fast-tracked in January when Marshall found an ad for an available downtown location. Never mind that the space was a crumbling old warehouse. As soon as he saw it, he told his wife, "This is it. We are going to get this gym."
Ford signed on, along with Schultz. The result, after a couple months of serious elbow grease, was a 5,500-square-foot parkour gym, one that's larger than the only other parkour facilities in the world: Primal Fitness, owned by Tribe founder Toorock, in Washington, D.C., and Monkey Vault, in Toronto, Canada.
APEX lacks the polish of most formal gyms. Its bare concrete walls, only recently stripped of rotting drywall, have yet to be fully covered with a planned parkour-themed graffiti mural. And more than once, the place has been left soaking wet thanks to, first, an exploding water tank, and then a leaky roof. While the landlord has fixed those two problems, not much can be done about the steady stream of vagrants peering curiously in the front door. One of the main reasons this warehouse was bargain-priced is that it's located next door to a homeless shelter. Then again, parkour is all about mixing it up in the urban environment, and it's hard to get more urban than this.
Beyond their current weekly schedule of twelve parkour classes and twelve hours of open gym, Ford and Marshall want to teach CrossFit, an intense strength and conditioning program, as well as host activities like gymnastics, breakdancing and aerial-dance classes. They're also thinking of starting a local promotional team, sort of a Colorado-based Tribe, and hope to do more military training, maybe some they can talk about.
Yes, the budget's tight; Marshall and his wife are living in an upstairs gym bedroom in part to save money. But as parkour continues to take hold around the country — MTV is reportedly developing a parkour special titled Ultimate Chase, and a group of traceurs is planning the first outdoor parkour training area in Texas — Ford and Marshall are confident they'll be able to keep their labor of love afloat.
Their conviction comes from the fact that they've both seen firsthand just how big parkour can get. Last May, the two traveled to Evry, France, near the birthplace of parkour, to be guest instructors at a citywide parkour festival. There they trained with a legendary crew of parkour pioneers called the Yamikasi, led exercises for an audience in the hundreds, and stood alongside the mayor as he recognized parkour.
"It's the same as a town here dedicating a ballfield or park," says Marshall. "That's how they see it."
After a stopover in London, where parkour is being integrated into school phys-ed curriculums, the two returned home, certain they'd witnessed the future for parkour in the United States. "I have always said that Europe is a year or two ahead of us in parkour," says Ford. "I actually see us surpassing them in the next year or two. I really think so many more people are going to get into it. If we continue to lead in a positive way, I think it's going to explode."
As more and more kids stumble upon the extreme examples of urban acrobatics through YouTube videos, corporate performances, television competitions and energy-drink commercials, all it would take is one bad sponsorship, one bad media spot — or one bad accident — for the budding parkour community to get a bad rap.
That's why Ford and Marshall have taken a more restrained approach to introducing people to their discipline than their crosstown colleagues at Hybrid Free Running, where students jump right into a more flamboyant offshoot of parkour called free running.
The Hybrid class at the 5280 Gymnastics gym in Wheat Ridge is easy to spot. The gang of guys in tank tops and wind pants stands out among the small army of unitard-clad tween gymnasts. But when these dudes leap into action, they're every bit as agile and dexterous as their Spandexed associates.
During a recent class, as Hybrid instructors Brian Taylor, Eli Worsencroft and Lorin Ball look on, students perform running flips off walls, back flips off platforms and twirling aerial somersaults. It looks like the stuff taught at APEX, but with a little more flash, a little more creativity.
Created by Sébastien Foucan, one of David Belle's early collaborators, free running takes the parkour concept and adds a bit of breakdancing and a bit of acrobatics. In straight parkour, flips and other showy moves are contrary to the goal of getting from point A to point B as quickly and eloquently as possible; in free running, tricks and stunts add aesthetic value to the routine, similar to the way that pirouettes enliven a ballet performance. "Parkour is great as an efficient way to move, but it wasn't enough for me," says Taylor, who cut his teeth skateboarding, breakdancing and practicing martial arts before founding Hybrid Free Running. "I am not always trying to get to point B as fast as I can. I have to express myself as best as I can."
Taylor and his compatriots started jumping off metro-area walls and vaulting over obstacles around the same time as Ford and Marshall, but they decided to forge their own path independent of Colorado Parkour. That led to some early friction between the two groups, including tense vibes at a few joint Denver-area jam sessions.
"COPK wanted to keep it more traditional, you might say," says Worsencroft. "Their feeling was that Colorado should be completely for parkour, and that we shouldn't have teams and be segregated. But we wanted to experiment and try new, crazy things. Our goal was we wanted to get sponsorships and performances and make a living out of it. And Matt and Ryan's goal was to make their gym."
So Hybrid members use the same flamboyance they display in their routines to promote their organization. In the summer of 2007, Worsencroft and Ball starred in X-City!, a twice-daily live show at Elitch Gardens amusement park in which they were chased around a stunt set by BMX bikers, skateboarders and breakdancers while wearing business suits. ("After each show," says Worsencroft, "I would feel like I was either going to pass out or throw up.") Taylor appeared in a commercial for Denver-based Go Fast Sports & Beverage Company, where he works as a graphic designer, and several Hybrid members performed the stunts in the locally filmed science-fiction film Ink.
They eventually plan to launch a clothing line, a Hybrid Free Running take on the traceur and free-runner aesthetic of loose-fitting pants and sneakers.
The goal is to follow in the footsteps of martial arts superstar Jackie Chan. "We want to become similar to him, to make this our livelihood, to have support from products and companies so we can keep training and live a full life," Ball says.
That's why this night, after their 5280 Gymnastics class is wrapped up, the three instructors and top student Logan Breitweiser stick around to plan their next big gig: a performance for the 2009 Teva Mountain Games in Vail from June 4 through 7.
Soon, they're hurtling across the mats, rehearsing stunts. One free runner dives into a headstand, then holds himself there, poised on his head, while another does a flip over his spread-eagled legs. In pairs they practice synchronized no-hand cartwheels in which both are upside down, suspended in mid air, for the same split second. And they inspect the promotional swag they'll be wearing for the show: Teva brand sneakers plus shades and apparel from Native Eyewear.
"How are we gonna do that?" asks Worsencroft about the sunglasses, since they can't very well wear them while bouncing around the stage. They'll wear Native Eyewear shirts and hats during the act, explains Taylor, then sport the sunglasses after the show.
APEX Movement won't be among their sponsors. "They aren't bad. They definitely are creative," says Marshall of Hybrid Free Running. "I know them; I don't not get along with them. They're like breakdancer kids back in the day."
His ambivalence is partly due to fears that parkour could end up like skateboarding; because of the rebellious and destructive attitudes associated with that sport's infancy, it took twenty years for it to blossom into a mainstream pursuit.
"Parkour really has the potential right now to go anywhere it wants to," says Schultz at APEX. "It's gotten into every single market. Right now, the only thing that has yet to be decided is what kind of lifestyle goes along with it. As that changes, it's going to be up to us and how we promote it and how we teach it to the next generation."
Lately, though, APEX Movement and Hybrid Free Running have been patching things up. Hybrid members have stopped by the new gym, and Ford, for one, welcomes them, especially since some upper-level APEX classes involve free running. "The last thing we need to do is create divisions within the parkour community," he says. Belle and Foucan had a falling out several years ago over how the discipline they'd created should develop, and that's led to lingering discord. During the parkour festival Ford and Marshall attended in France last year, for example, Foucan made only the briefest of appearances, and Belle, who lived nearby, didn't show up at all.
It's all just a silly argument over semantics, says Breitweiser, who took classes with Ford and Marshall before signing on with Hybrid. "There are people who say that if you do any flips whatsoever you are a free runner, and if you do anything with fluidity and flat moves you are a traceur," he says. "In my opinion, you can jump off a ledge or flip off of it, but it's all movement, so call it whatever you want."
As Bruce Lee said, "There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. A man must constantly exceed his level."
It's Ford's motto and the reason why, after making his fourteen-foot jump at Precision Fountain in Skyline Park with just a bit of a stumble on the landing, he immediately scrambles up to do it again.
"Once is nothing," he says; if he leaves now and tries it again in a month, the leap will be every bit as intimidating as it was this time. To really overcome this obstacle, mentally and physically, he has to hit it again. He does so — and lands perfectly.
Ford and Marshall pass a few more minutes in Skyline Park, ricocheting off walls and vaulting over gaps. Breathing hard, they take a seat on some park steps and relish the afterglow of their exertion. Between college finals, classes and APEX, they haven't hung loose like this lately. There hasn't been time to mess around like they used to.
"It's good," says Marshall. "I'm glad it's happening."
As they turn to leave, they notice three guys milling about the fountain. One after another, they're taking turns sprinting toward a concrete column, leaping up and grabbing the column's top edge. Then they hang there, perched on its side. It's a parkour move called a cat leap. "You guys doing parkour?" asks Ford.
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"We're trying," responds one. They're students at the University of Colorado Denver who started teaching themselves parkour four months ago. "Every time we come down here," one says, "we see someone else."
Ford and Marshall smile and nod. They tell them briefly about APEX Movement and suggest they stop by. Then they're off — into a world that's like one big Christmas present, filled with so many things they can do.