The first time Joey Adrian tried a kong vault, he couldn’t nail it. Practicing over his mother’s truck, he modified the move and came up with something he thought was original. But it wasn’t. He’d performed a double kong: the motion that eluded him, but with an added degree of difficulty.
Videos on Adrian’s YouTube channel demonstrate how his leaps get longer, the wall flips higher, the progressions more intricate. A rising star in the Portland, Oregon, parkour scene, Adrian, 22, has earned a glowing reputation with his fluid, powerful moves. “You have amazing style, flow, and precision man,” one commenter says. “So much talent.”
But Adrian credits the discipline for doing more than earning him shout-outs for his style — he believes it saved him from an addiction to alcohol. He started drinking at 12 years old and ended up in the hospital with an episode of alcohol poisoning in his late teens. That wake-up call failed to stop him, but a friend’s introduction to parkour provided him with an alternative to alcohol. Those early vaults sent him on a different path. Now he teaches freerunning at Revolution Parkour outside of Portland, and enjoys keeping other people healthy.
Like Adrian, many credit parkour for its ability to heal, and use the discipline as a way to overcome obstacles — physical, emotional, psychological — in their own lives. And like other physical pursuits, training becomes therapy. What sets parkour apart, however, is its adaptability and the supportive culture surrounding it. From hardcore professionals to naïve neophytes, participants earn access at their own level of expertise. And while parkour and freerunning don’t hold the answers to all of their problems, every step made in the pursuit of conquering an obstruction takes on a higher meaning. “Any level of physical activity can have phenomenal mental and physical health benefits,” says Adam Naylor, a player development consultant at Telos Sports Psychology in Boston and a sports psychologist with more than 15 years of experience. “It can help reprogram the brain.”
This is true for one of the best-known freerunners in the world, Luci Romberg. At 32, Romberg makes her living as a Hollywood stuntwoman, competes in American Ninja Warrior and Red Bull’s Art of Motion, and serves as a freerunning ambassador as a member of the vaunted Team Tempest. But before that, she was a decorated college gymnast at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. There, the Aurora, Colorado, native developed bulimia nervosa, which is characterized by binge eating and purging. The high-pressure, intimate, and ultra-competitive world of college gymnastics preyed on her insecurities. “Being in a leotard, you judge yourself while everyone else is judging you,” she says. “And gymnastics requires perfection. I was constantly judging myself. Whether it was gymnastics or just me, I don’t know.”
According to a 2004 study by behavioral scientist Michel Probst, those suffering from bulimia can go undiagnosed and untreated, due partially to the fact that many stay within a normal, healthy weight range. All the while, the condition takes a massive toll on the patient’s mental health. This led Romberg to feel herself losing control. But the fear and anxiety hadn’t paralyzed her yet.
After college, with her gymnastics career over, Romberg knew she needed to keep moving forward. She decided to take a huge risk and move to Los Angeles to pursue work as a stuntwoman. After former teammate and stuntwoman Natasha Hopkins told Romberg about the opportunities available in the industry, she decided to take a risk and move to Los Angeles. That decision changed her life. Hopkins also introduced Romberg to freerunning, and before long she was practicing with Victor Lopez and Tempest Freerunning. The movements she learned through gymnastics earned a new context. She surrendered her focus on perfection and began to embrace expression. She used her training with Tempest to expand her career, including performances in projects as varied as Dancing with the Stars, Zombieland, and this spring’s Identity Thief. As she began to devote herself more and more to the parkour and freerunning community, the impulse to purge dissipated. “By the time I was freerunning all the time, I hadn’t purged in a while,” she says. “I couldn’t tell you when the last time was. Once I was freerunning full time, I knew it was gone.”
For Romberg, parkour and freerunning offered the perfect kind of outlets — not only because of their focus on movement and fitness benefits, but for their noncompetitive ethos and accepting community. “Other activities are organized for perfection,” Naylor says. “Parkour is free of that.”
Last year, Romberg’s brother Brady raised more than $13,000 on Kickstarter to make Beautiful, a documentary about her transformation, which she hopes will help young women dealing with eating disorders. Five years after she began her freerunning journey, she remains vigilant about her disorder. She still watches what she eats and is acutely aware about how she thinks about food, but she overcame her fears and earned a place in an industry she loves.
The impulse to heal and help others also drew Vinnie Coryell, 21, to the discipline. He credits parkour with helping him manage his cystic fibrosis (CF), a chronic illness that causes the body to produce thick, sticky mucus that often leads to life-threatening respiratory complications. Coryell, of Grand Junction, Colorado, received the diagnosis as a child, and before his introduction to parkour led a sedentary lifestyle focused on video games and music. His illness prompted three to four several extended hospital stays per year. But after watching online videos of traceur Trever Floyd more than four years ago, he decided to try the movements himself. “I gained 10 percent lung functionality within the first year of starting parkour,” Coryell says. “It helped my diet, my nutrition. Everything worked better for me once I started doing parkour.”
His physician, Frank Accurso, M.D., head of pulmonary medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado, credits Coryell’s increased physical activity (which loosens the mucus in Coryell’s lungs and helps him breathe easier) with improving his symptoms. “We believe that exercise maintains weight and gives upper-body strength, which can help with breathing,” Accurso says. “There’s always a chance with exercise that he will bring up more mucus, coughing it up. And if he enjoys it, then it will improve his quality of life.”
Coryell does enjoy it, and he wants to help others find parkour, too. In 2011, he founded Move to Inspire, an organization whose mission is “to share parkour with people of all ages and inspire them to make a difference in their lives.” He hopes that parkour and freerunning can serve as an exercise program to others suffering from illness, and that his story might offer some encouragement. “The physical activity helped so much,” he says. “It has changed CF as a whole to me. It doesn’t even feel like I have it. I’m at such a different health level.” Parkour gave Coryell a reason to move.
The same is true for James “Rooster” Gallion. Born with cerebral palsy and told he would never walk without support, Gallion became one of the world’s most unlikely parkour celebrities. Cerebral palsy (CP) is usually caused by a prenatal brain injury, and is debilitating for many, affecting the body’s movement, coordination, muscle tone, balance, and posture. Some can’t walk at all. But Gallion’s first YouTube video demonstrates none of that. Sporting a slight goatee, a T-shirt reading “Know Obstacles, Know Freedom,” and a white baseball hat displaying the Chinese character for rooster (a nickname given for the way he holds his hands and arms), his disability becomes obvious only when he explains his introduction to parkour, speaking through a text-to-voice app on his phone. CP took Gallion’s ability to speak, but not to move.
On the video he explains his journey to parkour. He played a variety of sports as a child, but Gallion began to feel the stigma of his condition more acutely as he grew older. “I always walked around with a smile on my face,” he says, “but I always felt like an outsider.” He adopted a stationary lifestyle and spent most of his time playing video games. He knew he needed to find a way to build some muscle mass, and after seeing an episode of Sasuke (the Japanese Ninja Warrior) he decided to try parkour in July 2011.
His mother Vickie failed to see the genius of the idea. “Parkour is a very intimidating sport,” she says. “Some of those videos, it just takes your breath away at the stuff these guys do. I know him better than anyone, and I could imagine him attempting something that he just wasn’t ready for because he wanted it so badly.”
Gallion trained with the Dallas-area group PK Out, headed by Jenin Gonzales, and after his first taste — and despite a mild injury — he was hooked. Not just because he found an outlet for physical activity, but because he also found a community that accepted him as one of their own. “He came home and we were talking about it, and he was so thrilled that they treated him like one of the guys,” Vickie remembers. “They encouraged us to come back. That was enough for him. Having that acceptance, that was it.”
He trained regularly with PK Out and improved his skills. In March 2013, Gonzales posted a video to YouTube titled “A Reason to Move,” which told Gallion’s story and highlighted his technique. Thousands watched, and people reached out to him from across the world. He received sponsorship and endorsement opportunities as well as encouragement and support. “I didn’t expect that,” Gallion says via chat message. “I’m humbled.”
His mother estimates that he has increased his flexibility by about 30 percent, and the muscle he’s put on since starting his training helps with his mobility and strength. But the sense of well-being he’s experienced since joining the community, both near his home and around the world, is even more important. “It’s not just PK Out,” Vickie says. “It’s a community of people. It makes me want to cry. I am so impressed with the parkour community.”
And while the training won’t reverse the effects of CP, it has brought him relief in a substantial way. “Despite my disability, I want normalness,” he says on YouTube. “And the PK Out team treated me like everyone else.”