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AKRON, Ohio - Twenty years ago, Sebastien Foucan was a bored teen in Lisses, France. So, along with his childhood friend, David Belle, he began jumping from roof to fence, and thus was born an extreme sport called parkour or free running, which is spreading worldwide.
Parkour is a combination of gymnastics, running and balance. Basically, the pros look like Spider-man without the web.
"Parkour is about movement, and not only jumping," Foucan said in an e-mail interview. "It's an art form more than a sport. It's about expression of human beings with their environments."
It has become popular in the United States in the last couple of years, especially after the inception of Urban Freeflow, a Web site in New York and London. With more than 11,500 members exchanging messages about the sport, it bills itself as "the largest and most comprehensive freestyle parkour Web site in the world."
This is how Arlin Bradford, 14, of Streetsboro, Ohio, met William Schultz, 18, of Leipsic in northwest Ohio. Because Ohio is fairly new to the scene, "traceurs" (practitioners of the sport) connect with one another in the local forums to see if anyone else in the area wants to jam.
Bradford and Schultz demonstrated their sport recently in the grassy playground in front of Campus Elementary School in Streetsboro. With four other beginner- and intermediate-level Ohio traceurs, they started climbing up swing set poles, jumping off fences, and balancing on skinny railings.
"Once you start to do it, you look at your surroundings in a totally different way," said Schultz, who jumped up a concrete wall and lingered on the roof to marvel at the view. "You start seeing what's beyond things."
Unlike skateboarding or rollerblading, which are banned in many parks and public areas, there are usually no laws against parkour. Mark Toorock of Urban Freeflow said, "It's sort of hard to define, since we don't use things like skateboards."
Andrew Leiholf, 18, of Hudson, Ohio, said "just getting over the fear that you won't make it" is the hardest part about the sport, which dictates a constant flow of movement.
Leiholf learned about parkour when he stumbled on the Web site. "I was just cruising the Internet one night, and happened to cross the Urban Freeflow forum," Leiholf said.
Balancing on a wobbly wire fence, Bradford tried to figure out his next move.
"It's something that you don't need to compete in. It's all about having fun," he said. "There's nothing you have to prove; that's the coolest part."
For about a month, Bradford has been jumping off roofs and balancing on objects. His background in skateboarding has helped with leg strength and balance, especially in difficult jumps.
Like many teens, he learned about the sport through a documentary on the TLC cable network, called "Jump Britain," a sequel to "Jump London." The film showcases Foucan and other seasoned traceurs moving fluidly throughout the streets of Britain.
While parkour can be done virtually anywhere, many prefer busy metropolitan areas. The urban obstacle course gives teens and adults an excuse to be a kid again, said Schultz, who has gone to jams in Toronto, New York, and Michigan.
"Finding good places to do it is hard. I live in a small town," Schultz said. "I'm more inclined to travel to jam with other people."
In Toronto, Schultz and 30 other American traceurs met with about 70 Canadians. "We had to split up into four groups to kind of rotate the city so we don't cause a mob scene," Schultz said. "It was just heaven."
For Leiholf and Bradford, the local school playgrounds and parks around Hudson and Streetsboro are their practicing grounds because of the jungle gyms and obstacles. But just about any location can be used for practice.
"The best place to practice is wherever you are," Toorock said. "Figure out or negotiate whatever obstacles are around."
Although Toorock said the sport can be done by anybody at any age, safety is the main goal, especially for beginners.
"Figure out your limits, both physical and mental," said Toorock, who fortunately hasn't had any major injuries. "And be safe. That can't be stressed enough. Be safe."
Schultz came close to injury at a jam in Michigan a few weeks ago. "I jumped from the second story of a parking garage after vaulting over the railing," he said.
The six teens jumping and moving from one area to another were certainly engaging in a challenging physical activity. But parkour also has a guiding philosophy, developed by Foucan.
"It's really about never standing still as a person. As a person, I want to constantly challenge myself," Toorock said. "It's essentially a way of life."
(c) 2005, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.