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Playground fitness: Parkour gains ground with grown-ups — and troops

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A parkour student in Brookline, Mass., leaps over a balance beam. Parkour borrows elements from martial arts, gymnastics, rock climbing and more.

A parkour student in Brookline, Mass., leaps over a balance beam. Parkour borrows elements from martial arts, gymnastics, rock climbing and more. (AP photo)

As Navy Cmdr. Bill Whitmire stood in the parking lot of a Gulfport, Miss., shopping mall one recent afternoon, his attention wasn’t on sales or bargains. Instead, his eyes scoured light poles, stairways, parking barriers and other targets of airborne opportunity.

“I see 12 things right now that I would like to try hang on or vault [over],” the 44-year-old Whitmire said with obvious excitement. “That’s the beauty of this sport. The world is your playground.”

He’s talking about parkour — an increasingly popular sport that combines gymnastics, martial arts and a child’s love of playground possibilities. For Whitmire and other enthusiasts, parkour and its sister sport, freerunning, are fresh, fun ways to stay fit, healthy and combat ready.

With its emphasis on practical, natural movement, parkour focuses on getting someone from point A to point B in the fastest, most efficient way possible — whether that’s over, under, around or through, with a lot of room for individual creativity.

“It’s like being Batman,” said Salil Maniktahla, co-owner of the 10,000-square-foot Urban Evolution, a parkour gym in Manassas, Va. Maniktahla and his team train students in their gym and eventually unleash them into the world. “We’re running, jumping, climbing, rolling, falling and more. It’s the art and discipline of moving through your environment in an interesting and elegant way.”

One Sunday in March, more than 30 students of all ages, shapes and sizes jumped over UE’s obstacles, walked on railings in tightrope style, traversed various hand holds on elevated platforms or walked up or jumped onto walls. Other students learned to safely fall and roll in ways that allowed them to keep moving despite slips or stumbles. The vibe of the gym was that of a rock-climbing or hiking club — low stress, lots of smiles, little competition but plenty of passion and intensity.

“Fitness should be fun,” Maniktahla said. “Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid on the playground? Hanging on the monkey bars, sliding down slides, playing on the elevated obstacles? That kind of stuff is fun to us as a species. I’m not sure why we distance ourselves from those sorts of things as we get older. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to appear childish. Still, movement is not childish. And trust me — swinging on things is anything but boring!”

If the smiles on his students’ faces are any indication, boredom and apathy are anathema at UE.

“In many other gyms, you check your brain out at the door,” Maniktahla said. “In parkour, we’re always designing or finding new puzzles and problems to solve with movement and technique. It’s not all about strength and speed. In fact, technique can trump strength.”

A poster in the gym attests to that spirit. It reads: “A Six Pack Is Secondary.”

It was that sort of mentality that appealed to Whitmire, a Navy Civil Engineer Corps (Seabee) officer.

In 2010, as the commanding officer of a Seabee training command, Whitmire was looking for ways both to improve his unit’s fitness and to reduce the many sports-related injuries among his expeditionary warriors. Rolled ankles, pulled shoulder muscles and thrown-out backs were increasingly common.

Whitmire tried incorporating everything from traditional strength and conditioning exercises to Zumba dance classes, seeking ways to improve the core condition and coordination of his troops.

“Imagine me and a bunch of Navy chiefs doing Zumba,” he recalled. “Don’t laugh too hard, though. The spatial awareness benefits were not unlike that in football and basketball.”

Still, he kept looking for new, innovative — and practical — ways to motivate and inspire the “Can Do” command. One night in 2011, while surfing Netflix, he stumbled upon a straight-to-DVD-quality film titled “Freerunner.” The film features a young freerunner with a ticking time bomb attached to his neck “racing against the clock and all types of baddies to get from one end of the city to the other to save himself and his girlfriend.”

The parkour actor/athletes in the film jumped off rooftops, scaled walls and leapt onto and over cars with abandon. Think “American Ninja Warrior” on steroids. “It looked like a heck of a lot of fun and excitement,” Whitmire said. “The ways they navigated obstacles in an urban terrain were amazing. I wanted to learn more about it.”

A few Web searches later, Whitmire found Maniktahla and Urban Evolution. He asked Maniktahla if he’d be interested in coming down to Gulfport, Miss., to conduct an informal parkour seminar for the Seabees.

“These are people at peak physical conditioning who know there is no easy way,” Maniktahla said. “They immediately took to it and ran with it.”

Using cargo containers, Hesco barriers and anything else Maniktahla and his team identified as possible training tools, Whitmire and his Seabees soon were hooked.

“We weren’t doing back flips, jumping off buildings or climbing gigantic warped walls,” he said. “Still, we were hanging on A-frames, traversing across bars and climbing up the sides of walls and jumping over things. It was fun, and there’s a lot of variety and real-world application to it.”

And unlike traditional obstacle courses, which are few and fixed, parkour’s possibilities are endless.

Whitmire has devoted himself to the sport and continues to organize small parkour clubs, raising awareness and educating others about the sport.

Variety and challenge, experts contend, is the key to lifelong fitness. Parkour offers both.

“I’m doing some kind of parkour five days a week, and I love it,” Whitmire says — despite the occasional need to taper back. “Because there’s a lot of body weight exercises, it’s a little hard on my shoulders and biceps. There are times I need to back off and recover, but I’m always right back to it.”

Military roots

According to the World Freerunning Parkour Federation, parkour was born in 1902 following the eruption of a volcano on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

A French naval officer, Lt. George Hebert, “valiantly coordinated the rescue and escape of over 700 people from the scene, both indigenous and European. The experience had a profound effect on him as he watched people move, well or badly, around the obstacles in their path. The heroism and tragedy he witnessed on that day reinforced his belief that, to be of real value, athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism, ‘Etre fort pour être utile’ — ‘Be strong to be useful.’”

Hebert also was impressed by the physical development and movement skills of indigenous peoples in Africa and elsewhere, according to the WFPF, “and so created a physical training discipline that he called ‘the natural method’ using climbing, running and man-made obstacle courses to recreate the natural environment.”

Hebert’s methods soon were incorporated into French military training and became known as “parcours du combatant,” which translates as “the path of the warrior.”

Chris Lawson is a former Military Times managing editor.