RUNNING FOR THEIR LIVES

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By Aaron Broverman

For a group of Toronto youth, parkour is more than last year’s trend or a fleeting Rogers marketing campaign. The jumps, vaults and tumbles are a path to self-discovery. And Andrew Agnew-Iller it also became  the difference between life and death.

On April 17th 2005, Andrew Agnew-Iler was heading home on a clear spring night and he felt on top of the world, but at midnight his life caved into one single moment. An unknown assailant stepped out of the shadows and fired two shots point blank into the left side of his stomach.

Blacking out intermittently, he managed to call 911 for himself, stagger to Bathurst Street and hail a cab. Then he heard the mother of all interruptions at the mother of all inconvenient times — his phone rang. He had enough time to inform his friend that he’d been shot before the police and ambulance arrived.

He drifted in and out of consciousness for the entire ride to the hospital. Then right before he blacked out, he heard the doctors say, “Alright, we’re going to need to open him up.” He was gone…

I first met Andrew on an icy Saturday morning in February 2003 at the University of Toronto. I watched him and 10 other teens rebel against the walk, that slow two-legged drudgery that has been moving us since the dawn of time. It was also here that they came together as a unit known as PKTO, one that continues to defy gravity through parkour to this day. And while Andrew undergoes various surgeries, the friends continue to prove that parkour is a way of life — and not a trend.

Before that February day, and before parkour gained international attention, the members of PKTO knew each other only by their internet handles. They discussed coming together to use the city as their own personal jungle gym and experience the freedom that comes with running, vaulting and jumping through their own backyard. This is the basis of their sport, free running: the ability to use the city’s architecture and obstacles to mesh together a spontaneous sequence of acrobatic maneuvers. There are no wires and no nets.

In Lisses, France, where free running began, it is known by its original name — parkour, meaning “to go through.” PKTO is the largest free running team in Canada, and they try to practice it in its original form: without the flips, barrel rolls and stunts that distinguishes free running from parkour. “All of that would cause the runner to stop mid-run, traditional parkour doesn’t allow that,” says PKTO’s team photographer, Alex “WolfBeta” Tsiboulski. They have trouble convincing the younger members to stick to the traditions of the sport.

While the others hesitated to make the first move, I watched a quiet loner take it upon himself to show them all why he deserved to be there. His name was Francis Caron and he was known on the PKTO forums as “Frantic2112.” Maybe that’s why he started running toward a garbage can with frantic determination, or maybe it’s because he had been waiting for this moment his entire life. He wanted to finally show what he could do. As he jumped and took flight, he remembered the three-hour bus trip from Welland to get there. While planting his palms and moving into a handstand, he knew he couldn’t screw up. He completed the run by side flipping off the can and sticking the landing, making his first showing a success.

Why go through all this hardship for a few thrills? Because for Caron, PKTO and the elite free runners of the world, parkour provides an opportunity to confront their fears head on. They substitute the obstacles they face in every day life with the physical obstacles surmounted in parkour, the bigger the obstacle (like a gap between two buildings that begs for a cat leap) the bigger the challenge and the more spectacular the jump.

Parkour is about linking a vault with another move and another, running until there’s no pavement left and overcoming life’s obstacles in the process. It’s about a run that’s improvised using every feature of the landscape. This means Caron could vault off the can, move into a run, scale a gate and jump to the ground, all in one seamless motion. This sensation combined with the individualism and lack of competition, creates the crux of a freedom only experienced by those who practice it. It’s what the elite runners call, “flow.” The runner must flow from one object to the other, like water over rocks, a concept taken from Bruce Lee’s discipline, Jeet-Kun Do. Still, others don’t see it that way, believing the reasoning behind parkour serves only as a rationale for cheating death.

Max Donovan is one of them. He knows better than anyone where these kids are coming from. “I see myself in these kids; idealistic and thinking I was invincible.” He used to believe he was Evel Knievel. Now, he’s a veteran stunt professional who has worked on X-Men, Lord of the Rings and is a muay thai kickboxing champion with schools in Thailand and New Zealand. To him, free runners are just thrill seekers asking for trouble. “I don’t want to see kids ending up in wheelchairs.” But so far, no one has died free running and the worst injury was a torn ACL.

Parkour isn’t all about the big jumps, but when it is, the mental game becomes the lifeline against certain death. Free runners don’t jump unless they’re absolutely sure they can land. This is when the internal battle begins: doubt and fear on one side, confidence and personal validation on the other. Can they make it? Only they know, and that’s what attracts runners to the sport.

For Caron, the attraction is motivated by something deeper. “Before I started parkour my best friend died in a car accident.” The sport helps him fulfill a commitment he made at the funeral. “I had to keep living life and discover my full potential. It’s what he would’ve wanted.” Caron’s promise led him towards the upper echelon of the Church of Scientology, but he quickly did an about-face, putting faith in the movement of parkour instead. “When I come to the ledge before a jump, I’m forced to put all my fears about the accident aside and be in the moment. No other sport forces me to confront my insecurities so literally.” With each successful jump, he is able to face the world anew.

Many free runners around the world share this sentiment. Jamie O’Rourke of the U.K. says parkour helps him keep his body healthy and stay positive. Cliff Kravit of Los Angeles looks at the world with limitless possibility, knowing that everyone has a path in parkour, as in life.

Parkour wasn’t always the vehicle of self-discovery it is now. It took shape in the mid-eighties from the playground games of circus acrobat David Belle and his friend Sebastian Foucan. Lisses was beautiful, but boring. So in the innocence of childhood, they jumped and climbed on anything they could find. As they got older, the heights grew taller. Soon they put it into words and it became the discipline it is today. Now urbanfreeflow.com, the world’s largest parkour website, has people all over the world leaping through their cities. Dr. Lynda Mainwaring, a U of T sports psychologist, believes although free runners have an interesting approach to the sport, its growth raises questions about liability, safety and competence of the individuals. But to the naysayers, Iaboni delivers a strong message: “People always want to see us fail, but our community is strong. We’re not hurting anyone and we’re having an experience few can match.”

That means Francis Caron will evaluate the risk, but nothing can keep him from what he loves. “I will keep living life to the fullest because I know it can be taken away in an instant.”

As Andrew, known as “Wolfie” online, fought back from the brink of that instant, all of us that were together that day knew it would be a long, arduous road. When I first met him on that day in February, he was PKTO’s youngest member at 17, but also its most driven to compete. When I asked him what parkour meant to him he had this to say: “It gives me confidence in my everyday life, knowing that I can achieve what most consider impossible.”

Who knew that the impossible would come so soon and that, just as he predicted, it would be parkour that would give him the tools to battle back.

He heard their howls in his head, the feral beasts, ever hunting, ever cunning, ever running and himself running right alongside them. He could feel what they felt, smell what they smelled and taste what they tasted. It was in this hallucination he took his cue to return to the land of the living. “Wolfie” rose again. He awoke after two months in stasis and lot had changed; his prom passed him by and the world had a new pope.

A lot had changed in the world of parkour as well. PKTO was dealing with the increased media attention paid to the sport thanks to a new Rogers cell phone campaign in which some of the team members were featured in billboard ads on buses and subways across Canada. This brought on appearances for Dan, and a couple of the more senior runners, on Breakfast Television and write-ups in all three major newspapers in addition to Spacing Magazine.

Much like the influx of interest in the sport after the airing of the Sebastian Foucan documentaries Jump London and Jump Britain on TLC. PKTO is experiencing and explosion of participants. In some respects, this means increased gym time for indoor meets and the introduction of an all girls meet to the schedule, but Alex is concerned the growth is too much too soon.

“People spend time on the boards and then they come to meets thinking they know it all. They want to do all the flips and dangerous jumps and we have to explain to them the difference between free running and parkour.” Ironically, they find themselves policing the same safety, liability and regulation issues that Max Donovan and Lynda Mainwaring pointed out during that day at U of T.

As for Andrew, he owes his life to parkour. His doctors told him he should’ve never survived and the only reason he didn’t flatline on the operating table was because of his strong heart and dense muscle mass that fueled his recovery. The excellent shape he was in at the time can be directly traced to his willingness to eat, sleep and breathe parkour.

Of course his drive to feel the flow again has never died, but he’s not out of the woods yet 18 months later. He is going under the knife for what he hopes will be the final step in taking back his life from a shooter who is out awaiting trial due to lack of evidence. After that, he will have two more months of recovery and then he can start thinking about hitting the pavement. “For me,” he says, it’s not if I come back, it’s when.”


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