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Parkour's Rise on the Main Line

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Gravity’s Pull: Parkour enthusiast Gabe Streisfeld in action. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
Think of the possibilities. The world is your gym. Obstacles? Physical barriers—even those with unforgiving surfaces or gaps? They’re all easily overcome. You’re strong. Mentally and physically.

Just about anything is possible with parkour, an extreme approach to fitness, human aerodynamics and movement. Practices lend themselves to everyday, practical tasks, preparing you for many of the obstacles life throws at you. Think of yourself as Spider-Man.

Though quite new, parkour is catching on in certain areas—even the Main Line. But like anything unconventional, it’s not without its naysayers and misconceptions. Penn Valley native Gabe Streisfeld trained in the sport for several years in Lower Merion and Philadelphia before heading to college at the University of Pittsburgh.

Streisfeld’s parents were thrilled when he went away to skateboarding camp. But by the time he made it to Harriton High School, he’d grown “out of that phase.” Streisfeld soon turned parkour, which, like skateboarding, embraces the concept of body control.

When Streisfeld first told his parents he was leaving skateboarding behind, he showed them a parkour training video. “Of course, they were skeptical,” he says.

Later, in 2009, he made his first training video for his parents. “They trust me,” he says. “That’s the best way to put it.”

Parkour began quietly in France about 20 years ago. Essentially, it started as a movement between a small group of teenagers who had experience with martial arts and gymnastics.

Philosophically, parkour pins itself to Frenchman Georges Hébert and his Natural Method. When stationed as a French naval officer in Africa at the turn of the 20th century, Hébert paid particular attention to the activity of indigenous peoples. For him, it was about movement pertinent to any situation.

Today, much of Hébert’s influence is evident in military obstacle courses, especially the parcours du combattant in France. His influence is felt in reality shows like ABC’s Superstars competition and NBC’s American Ninja Warrior series.

Through videos, parkour spread to England, then to the United States. When Streisfeld began parkour in 2005, he was at the front end of the movement’s entry here. In the fall of 2006, he attended a seminar in New York given by Frenchmen David Belle, who learned parkour from his father, Raymond, a former soldier in the French special forces. His training sessions began with two hours of pure conditioning, and he stressed parkour as a discipline—not just a fad.

Parkour has a communal aspect to it—even what Streisfeld terms a “cult aspect.” “It attracts certain people, but basically it’s you versus yourself,” he says.

By the time he left for the University of Pittsburgh—where he will graduate this month—Streisfeld knew he wanted to combine his recreational interests with a professional career. He’s majored in rehabilitation science, and this fall he’ll start graduate work in physical therapy at Thomas Jefferson University. He was certified as a personal trainer in 2010. “It’s all connected,” he says.

Streisfeld’s earliest exposure to parkour proved to be a double-edged sword. YouTube videos only demonstrated the physical skills, the movements, the thrill and the danger. It all led to some reckless afternoons of experimentation—the same seemingly wild abandon that often gives parkour a bad name.

“Climbing buildings? Reckless teenagers? That’s not what parkour is,” says Streisfeld, who is passionate about forming and supporting organizations that establish safe instructional programs for beginners. Parkour requires a process, measured progress, and more classes and certification programs like the one he attended this past February in Washington, D.C.

Streisfeld was a driving force behind organizing parkour in Philadelphia. It was a logical outgrowth of his search for training partners. Held on Saturdays at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the “jam sessions” initially attracted four others, sometimes five. Once a year, he organized a large-scale jam.

After Streisfeld left for Pittsburgh, Souderton’s David Jones kept parkour alive in Philadelphia. After coordinating with a friend at Pitt, the two formed an official campus club, Panther Parkour, which now interests some 200 students. It’s so well developed that Streisfeld has stepped down as leader.
 

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“Some don’t come back after their first time,” he admits. “They say it’s too difficult. For others, it becomes their niche at school. They find their microcosm in the macrocosm.”

Through his work in Panther Parkour, Streisfeld was able to instill guidance, focusing on the sort of conditioning, discipline and philosophy he lacked prior to that revelatory conference session with Belle. “Up until then, I was just watching  the videos and trying all these reckless things,” he admits.

Streisfeld stresses, however, that parkour is still about self-discovery, freedom and finding your own way—and soon he’ll be back in the cradle of liberty. Ten years down the road, there may be competitions—or parkour could be dead here.

Parkour won’t replace traditional gyms—and it shouldn’t, Streisfeld says. But it proves that fitness never has to be limited to a gym or health club. “It’s not about being big and buff,” he says. “It’s about effective, efficient movement in your own environment.”

But those who embrace parkour are more than just feral cats. As significant is the mental aspect, or what Streisfeld calls “the fear factor.” Risk in certain movements is diminished with increasing mental strength. Physical confidence can make a complicated move like leaping across a city subway entrance seem as “common as walking.”

“It’s about trusting yourself more than anything,” says Streisfeld. “If you’re afraid you’ll fall, that’s why you fall.”
 

“It’s not about being big and buff,” he says. “It’s about effective, efficient movement in your own environment.”


Villanova University grad George Abraham discovered parkour as a senior at Devon Prep, when a classmate shared his interest in the discipline. That summer, Abraham saw an ad on Facebook for a beginners’ seminar. He attended, and pushed his body “to points that both scared and motivated me.”

There were subsequent seminars, then others. Soon enough, Abraham was helping others train. Abraham also attended seminars in Ohio with David Belle and his core founding group, the Yamakasi.

For Abraham, parkour was an “exit.” It helped him become more outgoing and less afraid to voice opinions.

“I went through some tough personal times through college, and the discipline gave me motivation to keep going,” says Abraham. “In the end, I brought myself out of my slump by focusing on my mind and body.”

Neither Abraham nor Streisfeld can really define parkour. “It takes on its own definition,” says Streisfeld. “It’s the pursuit of one’s own definition as you begin to see what you’re capable of.”

Most will tell you that parkour is about getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, Abraham says, but he calls that definition narrow-minded and constricting. “In my mind, the definition of parkour is George,” he says. “It’s who I am.”

While he hasn’t trained much since entering medical school in Antigua, Abraham’s current workout retains the imprint of parkour, and every time he’s home, he returns to that rhythm because his body and mind are ready.

Anyone can do parkour, says Abraham. Strength and endurance are not prerequisites—both come as a result of practicing it. “I’ve seen men and women ages 10-40 in the classes I’ve assisted,” he says. “You don’t need six-pack abs or a cut figure; I don’t have either of them. But I’m still able to stick a landing of a 10-foot gap or reach the top of a 15-foot wall.”

Education is the key to parkour’s expansion. It’s flashy, Abraham says, but just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of it. “Whenever I train by myself, my heart warms when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey! That’s really cool! What are you doing?’” he says. “They want to learn, and I’m more than willing to share.”

Visit americanparkour.com