Flat light oppresses Olin’s grey stone as Kaleb Ganz (’14) faces a 10-foot wall and begins to take smooth strides. His toes hit concrete and drive him upward. His hands grab the edge of the wall. The rest of his body follows. At the top, he slinks casually into the time-tested structure, framed by thick pillars and the sculpture of a massive hammer. The first element of parkour is getting the steps right, keeping your chest straight and your hands out toward the wall.
After that, Ganz explains, it’s like taking huge steps up the stairs. He could never stop at stairs, however.
“I see things and I wonder, could I do that?” he says as his wide gestures seem to move in rhythm with his thoughts. “I guess I have this inward drive to be doing new things.”
One of those things involves sustaining the Lewis & Clark Parkour Club this year. Ganz said that the club, struggling after its founder graduated in 2012, began its second year in September with about 60 students, which then dwindled to around eight members who shift between the weekday practices.
At the beginning of practice, Ganz meets Edo Shoshoni (’16) and Laruen Steck (’16) in the Pamplin mat room. They start with small warm-ups that consist of circular neck and shoulder movements and then move across the room in a series of dynamic exercises.
“A lot of parkour is derived from animal movements,” Ganz explains. The small group demonstrates the motion of a cheetah by crouching, exploding forward with both hands and then pulling their legs back under their chests. Then they turn sideways and rhythmically shift weight from one leg to the other. Ganz continues to exaggerate these small movements until he leaps over a space high enough to hold a low wall.
“Parkour is disciplined,” says Ganz. “It’s commitment, but not competitive sports team commitment. It’s about the small steps.”
The three athletes move to shoulder rolls, which are modified somersaults designed to protect sensitive bones during a fall or miscalculated jump. Ganz places his hands on the ground in a diamond and tilts them to one side. He explains that with one foot slightly behind the other, your elbows should fall to the ground while your legs explode upward. Then you should fall forward and then you should fall forward and land on your back foot.
“When you feel like you just spring up and keep going, then you’re doing it right,” Steck says.
“One of the big philosophies of parkour is that you should be able to do it your whole life,” Ganz says. “By landing on the balls of your feet you distribute some of the stress on your joints.”
Steck and Shoshoni take me through the sport’s essential elements—vaults, wall runs and tic-tacs. Shoshoni breaks down each component of the safety vault. He grabs a slick railing outside of BoDine, places his left foot on it, extends his arm, then extends his second leg and drops easily to the other side. “It’s like falling,” he said.
Outside Olin, he explains how tic-tacs combine wall runs and precision jumps. He runs diagonally at one of the pillars, slipping off the smooth stone and flying into a quick landing with both feet on the stairs. Both Steck and Shoshoni began learning parkour this year, but now they jump from a foundation built by hours of small movements. The minute accumulation of precise skill frees motion.
“Parkour is a playful sport,” said Steck. “It fills the lack of swing sets on campus.”
Parkour enthusiasts just have fun with it. At parkour competitions, said Ganz, people come together to share ideas and knowledge. They challenge each other but don’t try to edge anyone out. It’s about what you can do, not who can do it better.
The club shares the riskiest skill they have undertaken as they head toward Olin. “It’s probably what we’re about to do,” says Shoshoni.
When they reach the wall, they take their time. They admiringly circle around it, seeing the jumps painted on the concrete, their eyes always straining upward. “Skateboarding is known for kind of an aggressive culture.”
“Parkour is more about preserving the environment,” explained Ganz. “It’s a lot about respect—respect for yourself, respect for whoever might be using the space.”
A tour group streams past them, ready to edge out the competition with strategic questions. The Parkour Club stands by Olin’s structure. They’ve got this wall.
They’ve got four days every week, eight months every year. Maybe awkwardness simmers around them because the mad rush doesn’t get it. Ganz’s last reflection was, “People yelling ‘hard-core parkour’ is annoying.”