Parkour is more than meets the street in Lansing expert’s classes
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org January 14, 2013 7:00PM
See video of Kurt Gowan in action at www.suntimes.com/entertainment
Updated: February 16, 2013 6:05AM
Watch the season premiere of Showtime’s Chicago-set drama “Shameless” and, starting at the 7:47 mark, you’ll catch glimpses of local parkour expert Kurt “Blaze” Gowan. As a stunt stand-in for the character Ian Gallagher (played by Cameron Monaghan), Gowan is shown hightailing from McCormick Place alongside actor Jeremy Allen White (Ian’s older brother “Lip”). Authorities are in hot pursuit of the boys and their ill-gotten booty. Bounding down stairs, climbing a fence and leaping from a rooftop, the red-haired south suburban Lansing resident gives the pudgy fuzz a sweat-soaked workout.
It’s one of three showbiz gigs the 27-year-old Gowan, owner of Parkour Ways, has been fortunate enough to land (but didn’t actively seek) in the past several months. He also did an alley fight scene on Fox’s canceled “The Mob Doctor” and another chase for the locally made Bollywood extravaganza “Dhoom: 3.”
Gowan began practicing parkour — a French-born discipline/sport that involves the efficient negotiating of obstacles, whether natural or manmade — in 2009 following years of scant physical activity. No high school athletics. No martial arts. No gymnastics. Casual BMX bike riding and some “backyard wrestling” were about it. That same year, shortly after losing his mom to cancer, he began teaching the sport and in 2011 founded Parkour Ways.
“It opens up different doors for you,” Gowan says of parkour.
That’s true in work and life.
“There are those rare jumps where you have no idea what’s going to happen when you go for it, but you go for it anyway. And it could go one way. It could go the other. And a lot of times you’re surprised by which way it went.”
Parkour is nothing new, having been developed by Frenchmen Raymond Belle, David Belle and Sebastien Foucan in the 1990s. But over time it has become more organized and more mainstream. For a dazzling display, check out (or recall) the opening of Daniel Craig’s first James Bond flick, “Casino Royale” (2006). That’s expert-level parkour, done at great heights in the death-defying confines of a half-constructed building, and it’s credited with helping to bring the sport to a far wider audience. (MTV’s “Ultimate Parkour Challenge” tried, and failed, to turn parkour into a competitive “extreme sport” in 2010.)
Gowan keeps things much more down to earth, using handcrafted and pre-existing impediments such as wooden vaults, concrete blocks, steel rails and whatever else he brings to, or happens to find in, any given area to teach his students (kids and adults). He’s currently at Vie Personal Training on North Kingsbury and two other locations in Chicago and Forest Park.
“[Parkour] is something I always wanted to do, but I couldn’t find anybody to teach it in Chicago,” says French-born Vie owner Yvon Bignet, who was first introduced to Parkour via the 2001 French film “Yamakasi: Les samourais des temps modernes.”
Then he found Gowan, who turned Vie’s small backyard into a sort of parkour practice field. And while building a devoted following has proved challenging, Bignet says there’s no hurry; these things take time.
Student Beck Anstee, a 41-year-old mother of two, was familiar with parkour from television and movies.
“It just looks cool,” she says. “It looks elite and kind of daring, and I had never known that you could actually learn how to do it. I just thought it was a gifted set of people — and certainly no women.”
Aside from the fitness component, she also likes that it’s non-competitive.
“It’s between you and yourself,” she says. “It’s fear management.”
As a “certified” Parkour instructor, via an outfit called Art du Deplacement and Parkour Teaching, Gowan says he took a course offered by parkour’s originators, completed some physical tests and assisted them in staging an event.
In 2012, teaching parkour and performing it onscreen were Gowan’s only sources of income — albeit it meager ones. Still, compared to when he toiled in electronics retail for paltry wages, “I’m happier,” he says.
And he seems rather unfazed about getting hassled on occasion by those who are flummoxed by whatever nonsense he and his charges are up to when they’re practicing parkour in the urban wilds.
“We go some places and people literally tell us, ‘No skateboarding,’ even though we don’t have skateboards anywhere near us,” Gowan says, realizing there are liability issues involved in using private property for their feats of derring-do. “They just don’t understand what it is. And then there are some people who see us and what we’re doing and they’re kind of excited.”
His friend Remy Olson, a fitness coach, personal chef and nutritionist, is more than kind of excited, she’s passionate. Together with her like-minded husband Darek (“a true Ninja, one of those flying monkey people”), she tracked down Gowan online, watched him teach a class at Vie and asked him to be part of something called the Urban Ninja Project. A parkour-rife public gathering, the all-ages obstacle course event is scheduled to take place again on Feb. 9 and 10 — if the organizers can raise enough funds via a campaign at Kickstarter.com.
For Olson, parkour is as much about physical fitness as it is about living more confidently, deliberately and creatively. In the process of honing one’s parkour skills, she says, “you grow a pair.”
“Like, if you can do that jump, if you can have the discipline to learn that progression and get better and better, little by little, then all the silly nonsense that we face administratively throughout life kind of seems less significant, and more manageable too,” she says.
A bit of physical pain is good as well, she says. You feel it, get over it and move on.
“Once you have parkour or your physical activity has become your own,” Olson says, “you realize that no matter what other crap happens in life, ‘I always have my body.’ ”