Le Traceur - Our Waikato 100

00:49, Feb 27 2012
Life force: Damien Puddle says Parkour "puts a new lens on how you view people and the world ... The physical side of it starts to open your mind".
Life force: Damien Puddle says Parkour "puts a new lens on how you view people and the world ... The physical side of it starts to open your mind".

As part of Our Waikato 100 series, Alistair Bone talks to Damien Puddle. 

Damien Puddle and friends are traceurs in the original language - meaning plotters or tracers. The thing they do is called Parkour. What this means, unless you talk to them, is they run straight at a series of solid obstacles and then either leap, vault, duck, climb or bounce off them, depending on their nature.

Usually what they are landing on is not designed for that – it's often a ledge or a banister or bollard. Going full tilt at the thing looks mad. But analysed, a good traceur burns what energy needs to be lost with an elastic flex of the body mid-flight, leaving just enough for a 60 kilogram person to alight softly on unlikely places like a dainty bird.

Trim trio: Damien Puddle, right, with friends Matt Shephard, left, and  Reinhardt Coetzee.
Trim trio: Damien Puddle, right, with friends Matt Shephard, left, and Reinhardt Coetzee.

Muscles then pump straight from stop to go with no hesitation or indication where the new momentum comes from, and another immediate leap or sprint or roll on to, over or off another unforgiving surface. At its best, it verges on the imaginary: humans obeying only the law of flowing water – special effects made real.

Damien tells me that's the least of it.

"It changes who you are. If it doesn't, then you aren't really doing Parkour." Encompassed in the training is a philosophy and social movement.

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Fit and flexible: Parkour involves climbing or leaping solid objects with ease.
Fit and flexible: Parkour involves climbing or leaping solid objects with ease.

"It puts a new lens on how you view people and the world. You want to help people. You want to give of yourself. You enjoy your environment. The physical side of it starts to open your mind. You see a physical obstacle and you realise you can overcome it through training. You can also overcome things in your mind, like fear. And once you begin to apply that, you have other obstacles, hardships, family strife, and you can apply that lens to how you approach those."

Damien, an unofficial grad with first-class honours in sport and exercise science, a Christian and a redhead, has dreadlocks just three weeks old. In Waikato of 2012, they pass without comment. His other deal, Parkour, like him, is 22 years old and a showstopper, seeing him frequently bounding and bouncing over pieces of concrete architecture like a spring lamb. It's not a sport but it is exclusive.

"It doesn't matter how far you can jump but it does need someone who is willing to look inside themselves, who is willing to change. Some people are just not ready to let go of things like that."

It's French and the word Parkour comes from parcours du combattant or assault course. PK, as its name has further mutated, was evident in Western performance art as far back as the slapstick silent-movie era. But the modern movement was begun by guru David Belle circa early-1980s, whose anti-gravitational skills were showcased in the sport's classic multimillion viewed Youtube video SpeedAirMan.

Belle gave it a mystic/philosophical twist. It has mottos: Be strong to be useful. To be and to continue.

Damien says traceurs have their eyes opened to their surroundings. They mourn a bit over Hamilton City Council's decision to remodel Garden Place, as they thought it was quite lovely for their purposes. Parkour reopens the eyes of a child to some extent, overlaying a map of the world as a climbing frame of challenges and opportunities to overcome. Commonplace things look different.

"You hear a lot of Aucklanders say, I blinked and I missed Hamilton. But with Parkour, everywhere is a beautiful place. And I think when you live somewhere that other people consider a hole, it expands your views. I feel like I belong here. Coming back down from Auckland and smelling the manure – it's fantastic!"

It's not a sport, so failure's not a thing. Damien says Parkour is done for the participant's benefit.

"It would be silly to do a jump if you are not ready for it."

It is in contrast to the sport of free running, with which it is often confused. To the outsider, the two are identical. But free running is the wild child of the pair. It burst on to the scene in 2003 as former Parkour exponents took part in a Channel 4 UK special called Jump London. By chance, I was in London and it was the one thing I saw on TV there. The show aired as horrified Britons began understanding that the quick war in Iraq was coming home to fester.

Colour-coded warnings were stuck to the grimy fronts of century-old buildings and mysterious contrails turned the bright blue winter skies above the city into a mosaic of secrets.

It was just before Christmas and the streets emptied at nightfall. Into this eerie, end-timey scene came three super-cool Frenchmen, one black and two white, who jogged across and between high rooftops and vaulted sheer walls with a measured tread to a bassy laid-back dance track.

They were sprites, unaccountable, untouchable and precarious. Encompassing all things new and alive, tripping away with Gallic contempt as the fear below flailed at them.

It spawned a follow-up where the boys toured England and sparked a movement. Free runners got cutting-edge ads and money. Lead Jump London runner Sebastien Foucan was chased by Daniel Craig in a Bond movie. But it's not Parkour, says Damien.

"Free running was given an English name to make it more appealing to an English-speaking audience. They included some other [showboating] things in the videos, like flipping off obstacles. That grabbed the attention of a lot of young people and that side of it exploded."

It had a different mindset, a performance for others, while Parkour remained true to the self.

Not unrelated is his later statement: "People who get injured are doing it for reasons [other than personal growth] – for monetary gain, for other people."

Damien played rugby for five years and broke his collarbone and jaw in two places and was starting to get concussion when he let it go. In three and a half years of Parkour, he has hurt one knee once. A physical buzz is not what he is after.

"The buzz I get is in the application – how can I help? Or, I've changed so much over the last few years, how can I continue to progress?" He says a significant chunk of his personal growth has been down to Parkour, though he wouldn't put it above his Christian faith.

"Christianity and Parkour? In my view, they fit hand in hand. Christianity is about following the things that Jesus has said – to help the weak and give of yourself and turn the other cheek. And those are all things that are embodied in Parkour. The giving of yourself – the fact that your body is a temple."

The boys are ready for their demonstration on Unitech's concrete opportunities. Damien asks if I want a go. But the power-to-weight sum doesn't make sense any more. A little crowd gathers, watching the boys mimic spring-heeled antelope. A dream for some and elsewhere a memory of when bodies were rubber and as light as the air.

What will happen when he's old?

"In Parkour, we have a saying – there is always a way forward. I won't be able to jump as far but ... it is about all these other elements ... it is about how you engage with people in your environment more than about physical motion and physical feats. I could see how someone could continue to do it forever."

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