A composite picture above shows senior Justin Sweeney’s leap over the staircase near the Henry Art Gallery. Photo by Joshua Bessex
UW student brings parkour skills to ‘American Ninja Warrior’
Justin Sweeney has always liked to move. Growing up in Hawaii, he and his brother would sprint across boulder-covered beaches, race up trees, and do back handsprings.
“We’d jump on railings and do what we do now, just without a name,” Sweeney said.
Later, Sweeney would learn these kind of acrobatics are elements of the discipline of parkour, also known as the art of displacement.
“It’s getting from one place to the next place as efficiently as you can with minimal displacement, trying to find the straightest line from here to there,” Sweeney said.
The 23-year-old psychology major trains and works as a coach at Parkour Visions, a gym that offers classes in the discipline. Rafe Kelley, head coach and co-founder of Parkour Visions, believes Sweeney is one of the most elite parkour athletes in Seattle.
“He has been a really impressive person to me because of the dedication and thoughtfulness with which he approaches his training,” Kelley said.
Sweeney’s talent as a traceur, a French word meaning “one who practices parkour,” has led him to win parkour competitions in Washington; Colorado; and Vancouver, Canada. He has also competed in the TV show “American Ninja Warrior.”
AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR
While not exclusively a parkour competition, the skills required on “American Ninja Warrior” closely resemble parkour. So many of the contestants are also traceurs.
“Seems like more and more parkour is starting to take over ‘Ninja Warrior’ just because we all do this stuff anyway,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney’s first audition for the show was for the 2011 season in Venice Beach, Calif. Because he did not submit a video audition in time, he had to wait in line the night before.
“I was pretty dumb. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s California, it’s not going to be cold at all,’ so I didn’t bring a blanket — not very smart.”
After shivering in line for 12 hours, Sweeney “pounded” coffee.
“By the time I got to the end of it, [my adrenaline] was so peaked that I couldn’t make it up that warp wall.”
The warp wall is a 14-foot-high wall with a curved ramp at its base that competitors must run up in order to grab the top edge and pull themselves to the top. Sweeney didn’t qualify for the 2011 season.
For the 2012 season, Sweeney did not train specifically for the “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course, but he did prepare for the warp wall. He trained in Portland, Ore., and mastered a warp wall that was 2 feet higher than the one used on the show. He also submitted an audition tape to avoid having to spend the night waiting in line.
Sweeney’s second audition for the 2012 season was successful. He placed fourth in the first round and sixth in the semifinals, well above a qualifying pace for the final.
The qualifiers for “American Ninja Warrior” happened during last spring’s midterms. It was stressful for Sweeney to juggle studying for midterms while he was auditioning.
“I was just basically waiting in line with my textbooks, studying,” Sweeney said. “[Then I would] run [and] do my course, celebrate for 10 minutes, study some more, and barely sleep, and then go to the semifinals.”
This time, Sweeney qualified for the finals of the show. A few months later, he was flown to Las Vegas, Nev., to film.
Although he was glad for the experience, Sweeney found the filming process in Las Vegas frustrating.
Contestants run the course based on their qualifying times, with the slowest competitors going first. Because he had a good time, Sweeney didn’t end up running the course until nearly three in the morning. He spent most of his time in photo shoots, getting head shots, and doing TV interviews.
“The Hollywood aspect of it, I hate. It was just really, really frustrating. I don’t care too much that it’s a television show, I just thought it was really fun to run the course,” he said. “I really don’t care too much about airtime or anything like that.”
For Sweeney, the appeal of the show is the challenge of the course itself. The philosophy of parkour is all about overcoming challenging obstacles. After completing a particularly challenging portion, he approached it too casually, slipped, and was eliminated.
Sweeney hasn’t decided if he will compete in “American Ninja Warrior” again. If he does, he plans to have a different mentality.
“[Last season] I didn’t go as fast as I could because I wanted to make it to the finals,” Sweeney said. “This time, knowing all that goes into that, I’m not going to care about that. All I want to do is just test myself a 100 percent and just run through. If I fall, I fall.”
The goal of parkour is to develop physically in order to overcome barriers. Kelley said one of the earliest traceurs, David Belle, infused parkour with the ideal “to be the man who can run and let nothing stop him.”
Parkour Visions teaches this mentality and the idea of crossover or transfer. The physical skills of parkour could cross over and be useful in real life. The mental skills of parkour could transfer to overcoming difficult barriers, physical or otherwise.
“When you can take that focus and that courage that’s developed through parkour and you can apply that to your life, you’re a stronger, more capable person,” Kelley said.
Parkour Visions was started with some help from the UW. Tyson Cecka, the executive director and one of the co-founders of Parkour Visions, was the recipient of a Mary Gates Endowment Leadership Scholarship while he was an undergraduate at the UW.
Several years ago, when he was a student, Cecka was teaching parkour to a group of local kids on campus when UW faculty member Wendy Durant approached him, telling him to stop for liability reasons. Although she made them stop, she recommended that Cecka apply for the scholarship. The scholarship was used to help launch the nonprofit parkour organization that eventually became Parkour Visions.
“The way he described his project — the way he described what he wanted to do — it sounded a lot to me like it was very much Mary Gates Leadership Endowment material,” said Durant, who is the manager of finance and administration of the honors program and a Mary Gates Leadership Scholar herself. “I’m proud of him myself; I feel like I played a very tiny part in helping that not-so-little dream come true.”
April Wilkinson, the current adviser for the Mary Gates Endowment for students said the award was designed to help people do something special.
“That kind of an experience of starting a project here and then carrying that forward to a later career is one of the things we hope that these scholarships enable students to do,” Wilkinson said. “So I would say we’re very proud of that.”
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Cecka, Kelley, and Sweeney all spoke about the innate connection children have with parkour because they naturally want to explore their environment creatively.
Kelley grew up running through homemade obstacle courses in the woods near his home.
“I was like a lot of people where you view certain things as childish and you put them away and stop doing them,” he said.
The urge kids have to climb and swing through their world is so near-universal that for many, discovering parkour is less like starting something new and more like returning to something old.
“[It is a question of], ‘When did you stop doing parkour?’” Kelley said, because children naturally practice parkour; it’s only when they grow up that they stop.
Sweeney took his first parkour class on a Valentine’s Day date with his girlfriend. When he saw the acrobatics being performed, it was like an epiphany for him, a return to something he once loved.
Now, Sweeney does individual and group lessons at Parkour Visions. He said one of the things he enjoys most about teaching and practicing parkour is that “it is training disguised as playing the whole time.”
“I did a lot of that when I was a kid and you hit a certain age where you kind of just stop playing,” Sweeney said. “It was a realization that you don’t really have to — this is an actual discipline.”
Reach reporter Sam Kenyon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @samuel_kenyon
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