Canada's parkour gyms change course of outdoor sport

Parkour, an extreme sport movement that originated in France, has captured the hearts of hundreds of Canadians who now train at dedicated indoor facilities across the country. Despite the sport's outdoor roots, gym owners say taking parkour indoors is a safe way to train and compensates for a parkour-unfriendly climate.

Parkour, 1st popular in France, moves indoors in unfriendly climate

2J Pantoja started practising parkour in 2008, and while he trains indoors, he doesn't consider himself to have mastered a trick until he can do it outside as well. (Steve Nagy/Breathe Parkour Magazine)

Parkour, an extreme sport movement that originated in France, has captured the hearts and ambitions of hundreds of Canadians who now train at dedicated parkour facilities across the country.

Despite the sport's outdoor roots that some in the community maintain is the only proper way to practise, gym owners say taking parkour indoors is a safe way to train and compensates for an often parkour-unfriendly climate.

You can show up just with whatever shoes you want, with whatever clothes you want, and you can learn something.- Dan Iaboni, owner of The Monkey Vault parkour gym 

Parkour challenges athletes to find efficient ways to move their bodies from one point to another while overcoming obstacles, like walls, railings and other man-made features.

"The best part about it is it's so simple," says Dan Iaboni, the 30-year old owner of Toronto's The Monkey Vault. "You can show up just with whatever shoes you want, with whatever clothes you want, and you can learn something."

A French athletic import

That is how Iaboni started his parkour pilgrimage 12 years ago — hooked after seeing a news report of some French kids scaling their city's architecture. In 2005, he travelled to France and trained under David Belle, the mythologized founder of the body-bending sport.

Belle amassed a local following and co-founded the Yamikazi, a group of budding parkour enthusiasts and the stars of the video responsible for inaugurating Iaboni and many others into the relatively unknown sport. Belle, parkour history maintains, combined the so-called "path of the warrior" taught to him by his military father with gymnastics and martial arts to create the athletic hybrid.

Rene Scavington, the 27-year-old co-owner and founder of Vancouver's Origins Parkour & Athletic Facility, also watched the legendary Yamikazi on an episode of Ripley's Believe It or Not about a decade ago.

Like Iaboni, Scavington was left to his own devices to learn the craft as the sport hadn't gained much traction yet abroad.

Origins Parkour Gym offers monthly meet-ups outside and indoor classes to its clients. (Origins Parkour Gym)

Scavington scoured online forums to find others to practise with. He eventually founded a website to foster such meet-ups in British Columbia and started casually teaching outdoor classes in 2006.

By that year, parkour was gaining traction in Canada thanks to YouTube, providing athletes an avenue to share videos of their stunts for others to study.

Twenty-five-year old 2J Pantoja, who founded Edmonton's FlyFree parkour gym in 2008, learned parkour manoeuvres by watching videos. His first summer practising parkour in 2008, Pantoja uploaded videos to YouTube weekly, hoping the sport would grow and he would have more locals to play with it.

As his local community expanded, Pantoja realized, "All we need is a home."

"Skaters have their skate parks, bikers can share a space with them," he says. "We don't have a home."

Safety, weather trump outdoors

Shortly afterward, Pantoja founded FlyFree. In 2008 and 2012, respectively, Iaboni started The Monkey Vault and Scavington opened the doors to Origins.

Each gym boasts hundreds of monthly visitors, and The Monkey Vault is currently relocating to a bigger space thanks to growing demand. Several other parkour gyms exist across Canada as well.

But not everyone agrees that a sport famed for scaling outdoor structures should have a space constrained by the indoors. A recent article in the New York Times criticized the gym culture taking over the otherwise renegade spirit of the sport.

Like most parkour gyms, Origins simulates outside challenges for clients to practise on. (Origins Parkour Gym)

Safety and the harsh Edmonton winters are the biggest reasons Pantoja turned to an indoor space.

FlyFree, which imitates the outdoors with miniature buildings and scaffolding, provides a safe space for students to work up to performing tricks outside.

Pantoja, who has mastered a double back flip off a picnic table from a standing position, says he "would never, ever try that outside first ... There's just no way."

And in the winter? Forget about it.

"Come to Edmonton, Alta., and see if you can do parkour all year outside," he says. "Good luck."

Outside not forgotten

Iaboni, who trained under Belle and considers himself a parkour purist, agrees that safety and weather make a strong case for indoor practices.

"If I can get a 60-year-old to start moving again inside ... why not bring a 60-year-old inside?" he says. "It's safer."

Still, outdoor time remains a key component of parkour for the gym owners.

The new Monkey Vault space will have access to lots of outdoor space, says Iaboni, making it easier to provide classes outside — weather permitting. Origins provides monthly outdoor meet-ups.

The goal, it seems, remains to become proficient at doing parkour outside of the gym.

"In my training, I tell myself that I can't do a trick, unless I've done it outside," says Pantoja.


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