Nearest Parkour Gym
Ash Bartlett has been looking forward to trying some parkour moves at the University of Montana for more than a year.
This week, he's finally getting his chance to travel 5, 000 miles from London to Missoula for the fifth annual Fool's Jam parkour event.
He was greeted with a hug by a member of Unparalleled Movement, the event host, and welcomed into the tight-knit community at Montana's only parkour gym.
"This is what makes me want to keep doing it. It's like family, " he said.
Bartlett wants to study the 5, 000-square-foot Westside gym, since he has plans to open one himself someday. Where he lives, the nearest indoor gym like Unparalleled is 40 miles away.
"I travel there every week, but the younger kids can't do that, " he said.
He's only visited the United States once, when he was a child. That trip was to Miami.
"I've never seen mountains before. We went hiking yesterday, " he said.
Bartlett was one of the parkour enthusiasts who traveled to Montana for the event, which is expected to bring in 150 people from 10 states and four countries. They'll explore the terrain, both urban and backcountry, over four days and compete in a skills challenge Friday evening that's open to the public.
Some of the favored spots are the Adams Center and Westside Park. They've received permission to use many outdoor spots around town, often after explaining their sport.
"This is what we do for a living, " said Micah Marino of Unparalleled Movement. "It's nice when people understand that and allow us to practice our art form around town."
Definitions of the sport vary, but it can be thought of as moving from one point to another, creatively using the obstacles along the way in a gymnast-like fashion.
It takes its name from the French phrase "parcours du combattant, " which means "the path of the warrior, " according to the World Freerunning Parkour Foundation's website.
Its proper history, with elements from many disciplines, is too lengthy to include here. It involves residents of a Caribbean island fleeing a volcano in 1902, French Special Forces training for Vietnam jungle warfare, the film director Luc Besson, a '90s underground movement, and popular culture nods in movies like "Casino Royale." Like many things, it spread around the world through YouTube.
That is how it got to Missoula's Westside, where Unparalleled Movement opened its gym in 2012.
Marino, Michael Graef and Kent Johns all started in the sport as teenagers, learning tricks via online videos.
Their gym is filled with 8-foot-high pillars and bars, plus small obstacles that the athletes can incorporate into their lines. Toward the back of the facility, they have a large foam pit and trampoline for practicing.
Since parkour is a young sport, the Unparalleled crew designed the obstacle course themselves and Marino built it. They've remodeled five times, refining parts and adding elements they felt were missing.
It's the only parkour gym in the state, and they have plans to expand into a 10, 000-square-foot facility, and even open a gym in Bozeman and other towns farther down the line.
Each week, an estimated 200 people come through the door. Unparalleled has about 12 people who work as coaches and instructors, a figure that includes student-teachers. They offer open gym time and classes for all ages.
All ages were filling the gym Thursday as Marino gave a tour and explained their training.
"You only have a body, it's what you go through this life with, so you should learn how to use it and master it, " said Marino, who grew up in the competitive gymnastics world.
Parkour training starts with basic vaults, balance and learning how to fall. For everything the coaches and instructors teach, they also give a primer on the "don'ts." For instance, if participants are leaping from one raised surface to another and don't clear the distance, they need to know how to gracefully recover by planting their foot on the wall correctly so they can land without injuring themselves.
The same goes for the "falling" training. Marino ran toward a wall, jumped and used his legs to hurl himself backward toward the floor. Using the right rolling technique, his arms and tailbone were spared any strain, even though he'd just landed on concrete.
"All of this stuff is super thought-out and precise, " he said after bouncing back to his feet.
Movement and play keep the body and the brain healthy, too, he said.
"When I'm down, I come here, " said Christian Labare, a Big Sky High School student who's been at it for about a year.
"You get it pretty quickly. If you stick to a daily routine, you can progress pretty fast."
Chad Platt-Kuhn moved here in September from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to be close to friends and the parkour community, and attend school.
As Marino explained some of these matters, Platt-Kuhn was behind him spinning on a bar. He'd release, shooting his body some eight feet toward a wall.