By of the Journal Sentinel
Luke Albrecht doesn't see the walkway around the Betty Brinn Children's Museum in downtown Milwaukee like others do.
Where most people see steps, iron railings, ramps and concrete walls, Albrecht sees something to leap over. As a rock climber instinctively looks at the side of a mountain as a series of hand and toe holds, Albrecht sees structures as more than just nondescript buildings, ledges and walls.
They're obstacles to run on, over, through and around.
Albrecht is a free runner. More commonly known as parkour, the training discipline is a mash-up of running, gymnastics and tumbling outdoors. The object is to move quickly through the environment, using only muscles and sweat to propel yourself.
Parkour is "getting over obstacles as efficiently as possible. There's a wall — how do I get over it?" said Albrecht, 22.
On a recent sunny day, Albrecht demonstrated parkour. He started on grass at the back of the museum, leaping seven feet up a wall, pulling himself up to vault over a ledge, running across the walkway to the railing and then leaping over, twisting his body and landing on mulch, popping up to run along the side of a wall while spinning his sweatpants-clad legs. Then vaulting over the rail and finishing with a "cong" over the rail and rolling onto the grass below.
The entire maneuver, or series of moves, lasted about 10 seconds. What was going through Albrecht's head?
"Honestly, the mind is just a blank. If you think about it, that's when you mess up. You're just doing it, " Albrecht said, still panting.
Running, jumping, climbing, leaping, vaulting, twirling, somersaulting — it's all part of turning the urban landscape into an individual obstacle course. The discipline's origins date back 25 years to France and the name is derived from the obstacle-course method of military training called parcours du combattant. Parkour enthusiasts are sometimes called a traceur or traceuse, depending on their gender, because they're tracing a path through the landscape.
Albrecht and Michael Hartwig, 21, teach parkour classes at the West Bend YMCA and workshops in Brookfield and Madison, and they belong to Freerun Leaders of Wisconsin (FLOW). Each sports tattoos of the FLOW logo on their wrist.
"Parkour is definitely growing in America, but people don't know it's a discipline, " said Hartwig, of Mayville.
"There are silly debates over what it is or isn't, " added Albrecht, of Hubertus. "But free running is all about movement. You don't want to get too locked into movement because then it's gymnastics."
Hartwig and Albrecht teach students the movements — rolling, vaulting, wall runs, cat leaps and precision jumps. Before learning the basic moves, students learn the proper way to stretch. Parkour enthusiasts are mostly young males, though some girls and women participate.
Boosting the profile of parkour in Wisconsin are amazing videos shot by Albrecht and Hartwig using tiny hand-held video cameras as they leap and bound over walls and obstacles in Milwaukee.
Albrecht and Hartwig organize "jams" through social media — telling the parkour community in the Midwest about an upcoming get-together in a public place. No reservations required. Folks just show up in flat-soled sneakers and loose-fitting clothing.
At a recent jam in downtown Milwaukee that attracted a couple dozen parkour enthusiasts, Leann Schwarz, 19, of Mayville was the only female. A softball player in high school, not a gymnast, she had heard of parkour but didn't get involved until a year and a half ago when she became friends with Hartwig. Schwarz taught herself parkour moves with the help of Albrecht and Hartwig.
"I don't think there's anything they can do I can't do with dedication and hard work, " said Schwarz, who works at Cabela's. "I do it to get away from every day life. You feel really free. It's an escape."
Parkour is more well-known in Europe because that's where the discipline was established. More women participate in parkour overseas than in America, Hartwig and Albrecht said. But it's gaining popularity in the U.S., fueled in part by the opening chase scene of "Casino Royale, " the 2010 James Bond reboot starring Daniel Craig and featuring a famous freerunner named Sébastien Foucan.
Though this may be the part of the story where the words "don't do this at home" appear, actually Hartwig and Albrecht say parkour is safe because the discipline is about the absorption and redistribution of energy when they land, roll and tumble to the ground. They plan their moves and test the surfaces first.
"We're not reckless. The last thing we want to do is hurt ourselves, " said Hartwig.
As the parkour group lines up to run and vault over a concrete stairway near the Milwaukee Art Museum, tourists, bicyclists and parents pushing strollers stop to gawk. Some pull out cameras to snap the whirling, twirling gathering. A few toddlers mimic the moves, including those of Aaron Evans, 24, of Milwaukee whose dreadlocks circle his head as he leaps.
Evans is athletic but not interested in competitive sports. He didn't know at the time, but he's been doing parkour since he was 5 when he was entranced by martial artist Bruce Lee and tried to run up the side of his house. He now teaches gymnastics at East Side Turners and parkour at Infinite Gymnastics in Brown Deer.