What would possess seemingly sane people to treat concrete walls like trampolines? To leap over handicap-access ramps like Donkey Kong? The answer is parkour, a jaw-dropping hybrid of gymnastics and cross-country running that is equal parts Spider-Man whimsy and hard-core stamina. The word is derived from the French term for obstacle course, and like it or not, U.S. college campuses are becoming hot spots for this exhilarating new breed of steeplechase--horse-free and adaptable to any setting. Google parkour, campus and map, and you'll find, among some 58,000 results, an annotated parkour map of the University of California at San Diego and photos, taken at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, of vault-worthy railings and bulwarks galore.
Most college campuses, with their airy courtyards and often zigguratish architecture, are well suited for testing the bounds of sneaker-clad samurai and, at least in a few cases, their school's insurance coverage. Grisly parkour injuries--from broken face bones to a bruised liver--have been reported to United Educators Insurance, a major insurer of colleges, but so far, schools' liability exposure has been minimal. The question usually comes down to, Did officials know that students were jumping from high places? If so, did they try to restrict access to those areas? In October, Christopher Fu, a junior at the University of Illinois, got past a tall chain-link fence before plummeting to his death from the school's TV tower. Because Fu had expressed interest in a local parkour group on Facebook.com campus police couldn't determine whether his fall was an accident or a suicide. Like cops on many campuses, Illinois' assistant chief Jeff Christensen had never heard of parkour until the death at his school but is now on the lookout for what he calls "very risky behavior." It's no surprise then that while students at a small number of colleges have registered parkour clubs with their schools, fear of crackdowns has kept the movement largely underground.
Parkour got its start in Paris two decades ago when a soldier's son and another teen began devising moves to quickly get from one point to another to rescue someone or escape in an emergency. The sport, sometimes called free running, has been seeping into American consciousness in recent years via upwards of 25,000 YouTube clips as well as more mainstream forms of entertainment. Tony Heinz, 19, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, says he told his parents last year that he had started practicing parkour, but they didn't really get what he was talking about until more recently, when he asked if they had seen the James Bond film Casino Royale. "Yes," they responded. "Do you remember the chase scene at the construction site?" "Yes." "Well, I'm doing stuff like that." "What?!?"
Heinz is among the handful of members who regularly show up for twice-weekly practices with the club he registered at his school last fall. Ryan Ford, 19, a business major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, set up a similar club in November. In three years as a traceur, as parkour people call themselves, Ford has had one notable injury: separating his shoulder last summer after his foot clipped a rail and sent him headlong toward concrete. But instead of face planting, he managed to keep rolling over. "I like to think parkour actually saved me from more serious injuries," he says. "I know how to fall."
Parkour may be the ultimate sport for Ford and other devotees. "You need every athletic skill there is--endurance, strength, flexibility, balance, everything," he says. And there's no equipment required. "That's the thing about parkour," Ford says. "It opens your eyes up, and you're able to find something to do wherever you are." This semester the sophomore is doing an independent study with a biomechanics professor to assess the impact of various landing techniques and is teaching parkour classes at a local gym. Participants must sign a liability waiver that is "valid forever" and includes such boldfaced statements as "I AGREE TO EXPRESSLY ASSUME ALL RISKS OF INJURY OR DEATH."
For all its inherent risks, parkour encourages good habits. The sport is heavy on discipline and self-improvement. True traceurs don't smoke (because it would hurt their endurance) or run under the influence (because it would hurt their balance and agility). "The problem is that people see all these videos of high-level stuff, so they go home, jump off their roof and wonder why they blow out their knees," says Tyson Cecka, 20, a sophomore at the University of Washington who just spent a week in Los Angeles doing parkour for a sneaker commercial. "They don't understand that we're training thousands of times on the ground, all these different vaults, all this precision." Parkour websites post daily homework in the form of push-ups and other exercises, and some veterans urge "noobies" not to show up for training sessions until they can run a good three miles. The upshot: poseurs don't last long.
In general, parkour enthusiasts tend to respect authority and if told to stop climbing on a wall will nod and move along. Some try to explain to campus cops exactly what it is they're up to. Students at Maryland's McDaniel College told its campus safety director, Michael Webster, how much planning goes into what he remembers their calling "architectural acrobatics," and they stressed that they wouldn't "create an unnecessarily large amount of first-aid calls." Their entreaty worked. Today Webster says there is no official prohibition against parkour. Other schools seem caught between safety concerns and not wanting to stifle student enthusiasm. Last year, when a University of Washington administrator went outside to tell Cecka to stop climbing on her office building, she was impressed by his passion for the obscure sport and encouraged him to apply for a $4,500 leadership scholarship, which he is using to create a nonprofit to spread the word about parkour. As he quietly trains on campus, Cecka is preparing the paperwork for an urban-reclamation club to spruce up the school and build goodwill to one day get university officials to sanction parkour. "Hopefully, they'll listen to me then and won't immediately turn me down due to liability concerns," he says.