At the age of ten, Milen Nelivigi (11) was enjoying Casino Royale, a James Bond thriller, when a scene filled with heart-stopping leaps, jumps, and rolls caught his eye. The scene, coupled with countless Youtube videos of parkour, inspired Nelivigi not just to continue watching others master the sport, but to try it out for himself.
In fifth grade, Nelivigi and a few of his friends from his old school, Trevor Day School, began practicing parkour once a week at a nearby park. “I enjoyed the social aspect the most,” Nelivigi said. “Everyone had their strong points, so if someone was better at one thing they’d help you out with that.”
Parkour, by definition, is the act of moving in the most efficient way from point A to point B, Nelivigi said. However, because of the number of obstacles, parkour isn’t just about running; it’s also about balancing on small objects, jumping over vaults, and scaling walls—all without any equipment.
Because of the number of obstacles, parkour is an extreme mental challenge, Nelivigi said. “You can already do these things physically,” he said. “It’s just about overcoming fear.” To counteract his nerves, Nelivigi promised himself that during practices, if he encountered an obstacle he didn’t think he could overcome, he would attempt it at least 10 times before giving up. Overcoming these obstacles provided Nelivigi with a great sense of pride, he said.
Nelivigi specifically recalls learning how to scale one wall, which he originally thought was too tall for him to climb over, that same year. “After a month of practice, I was able to scale the wall and jump off of it without being scared,” Nelivigi said. “It gave me a lot of confidence because it’s easy to give up on something that you think you can’t do. After I finally got over it, I realized you just have to put some work in and push yourself.”
Nowadays, parkour generally attracts people seeking an adrenaline rush—but it wasn’t always a voluntary, or recreational, activity, Nelivigi said.
According to the World Freerunning Parkour Federation (WFPF), the people of the Caribbean island Martinque and their ability to navigate the land and natural obstacles greatly impressed naval lieutenant George Herbet. Hoping to improve his soldiers’ grace, Herbet implemented the sport as the training for the French army during World War I.
Then, in the late 20th century, veteran of the French Special Forces Raymond Belle taught the discipline to his son, David Belle, who established the first organized group of parkour practitioners with his friend Sebastian Foucan. Howver, after a personal split, Foucan moved to the United Kingdom and brought with him a varied version of the sport: whereas Belle’s version of parkour had no flips, Foucan’s new approach relied on acrobatics. In the years following the divide, new leaders, who were not necessarily followers of either Foucan or Belle, emerged in the sport. By 2007, practitioners sought unity between athletes of various perspectives, and as such formed the WFPF. The WFPF was the first organization to formally introduce parkour as a sport, and is currently dedicated to “advancing this dynamic new sport to its proper place alongside other recognized sports and disciplines,” their website said.
And as is typical for other sports, Nelivigi and his friends registered for official parkour classes in eighth grade. The classes, held once a week for an hour, were hosted in a Chelsea Piers gymnasium, allowing Nelivigi and his friends to practice more difficult skills such as flips and jumps between tall ledges.
“We thought that doing the program together would be fun because we went to different schools,” he said. “It was a chance to reconnect and do something fun at the same time.”
Nelivigi loved the sport, but hated the injuries that followed. “Getting hurt was the worst part—not even severely hurt, but just getting scraped up a bunch,” he said. Many of the objects Nelivigi needed to grab onto had rough surfaces and would scrape up his palms, he said.
After three months at Chelsea Piers, Nelivigi broke his ankle by flipping from a trampoline into a foam pit. Though he stopped practicing and he never picked up parkour again, he began skateboarding as a freshman in ninth grade, and his experiences directly transferred from one sport to the next, he said. “[From parkour] I’d learned how to fall, and how to take impact,” Nelivigi said. “When I was learning how to skateboard, I’d fall all the time. I would roll with the falls, so I never really got hurt.”
The sport also taught Nelivigi that he should be willing to challenge himself more, he said. “We can do a lot of amazing things, and the only obstacle for many of them is fear.”