The Path of Frequent Resistance | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Path of Frequent Resistance 

If the sport of parkour ever takes off, Chicago's Michael "Frosti" Zernow could be one of its first superstars.

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It's a summer night in Oz Park and Michael Zernow, whom everyone here knows as "Frosti," is undressed for action. Wearing nothing but black shorts, yellow sneakers, and a black skullcap, he stands on a two-inch-wide plank and prepares to run a precarious route on, over, and around the play lot equipment he's using as an obstacle course.

Frosti takes a flying leap from the top crossbar of a wooden play set to a ledge on another playset several yards away that looks like a castle rampart. His feet land with perfect precision. He then winds in and out of the structure's various openings like a centipede. After crawling along the exterior of the play set, he takes another flying leap, about four feet down to the ground. His landing makes barely a sound. His bare torso—inscribed with a tattoo that says change yourself, inspire the people, save the world—is glistening with sweat.

The discipline he has just demonstrated is called parkour, which in France, where it originated, means "obstacle course" and is also known as "the art of displacement." Parkour is based on finding ways to get from point A to point B in the quickest manner possible. Typically, that means jumping over, climbing on, or flipping off of any obstacle in your path. Frosti's version of parkour also incorporates elements of "freerunning," a variation that emphasizes stunts more than speed. If you saw the 2006 Bond movie Casino Royale, you saw Daniel Craig chase the creator of freerunning, Sebastian Foucan, up, down, and around a construction site, including the cranes.

Parkour is one of those Gen Y phenomena that have grown exponentially in the past few years thanks to YouTube. The most popular videos of traceurs (and traceuses, as female parkour practitioners are called) racing over urban landscapes have racked up millions of views apiece.

Frosti, 21, communicates regularly with his parkour pals over online forums, but just about every Wednesday evening the locals gather in Oz Park, near Lincoln and Halsted, which has all kinds of uneven ledges, benches, and wooden railings that suit their purposes. No one trains harder than Frosti.

Thousands of people are believed to practice parkour in the United States, and Frosti is one of the most widely recognized. At five-foot-eight with a sinewy build, multiethnic features, and short black hair that's often pushed into a fauxhawk, he has a distinctive look. Among parkour enthusiasts he's known for his daring acrobatics—he makes a move like a standing backflip look easy. He's done stunts in K-Swiss commercials and performed on Madonna's Confessions tour. Last year, at 20, he became the youngest person ever to appear on Survivor, when it was set in China, and now he's working to develop a parkour clothing line.

His profile, skills, and experience have prompted some traceurs to speculate that if parkour is going to break out into the mainstream, Frosti could be one of its first superstars. "Frosti has been in the public's eye for years and also had the talent and dedication to go along with it," says Ryan "Cloud" Cousins, who along with his brother Andrew "Ando" Cousins has been credited with founding the Chicago parkour scene.

"You can tell he's having a lot of fun and enjoying what he's doing," says Michael Horvath, who's studied under Frosti since taking up parkour a year ago. "He makes parkour and especially freerunning his thing. He's just a good representation."

Born and raised in Traverse City, Michigan, Frosti developed many of the skills used in parkour long before he'd ever heard of the sport. His mom, who's Japanese, and his dad, who's Russian, both teach aikido, and Frosti studied it all the way through school. In high school he also captained the wrestling and track teams.

When he was a sophomore, one of his aikido instructors told him about parkour, and Frosti tracked down a tape of Ripley's Believe It or Not with footage of traceurs in action. "I watched it," he says, "and later that day, me and my friend were doing it."

His repertoire quickly expanded, and in his senior year he pulled off a stunt that became legendary at his school. Anticipating that a walkie-talkie-toting school principal would be monitoring students in the cafeteria with his back to the windows, Frosti, dressed as a ninja, scaled the school rooftop, rappelled down the side of the building, and began doing backflips on the lawn—much to the amusement of the students inside. He was pinched a few minutes later by another school administrator. "I feel like if I had focused on being a better ninja, I wouldn't have been caught," he says.

After high school he moved to Chicago—ostensibly to study film at Columbia College. But the real attraction was parkour. Through a mutual friend, Frosti had learned about the burgeoning local scene led by the Cousins brothers. Both were members of traveling traceur troupes—known as the Tribe and the Alliance, respectively—that had posted videos online, attracting the attention of marketers for the likes of Timberland and Unilever.

After hooking up with the Tribe, Frosti decided he was less interested in making films than in practicing parkour—and if he could appear on-screen doing the sport, even better.

In 2007 he decided to audition for Survivor. He liked the fact that the show pushed its stars to extremes, and it seemed like a great way to introduce himself and his sport to millions of people. So he sent in a tape showing some of his moves along with his audacity—the first words out of his mouth are "fuck that!" He tells the ninja story, of course, and in one scene offers to show his sweet "gun collection" to the viewer, pretends to reach into the refrigerator, and pulls out his flexed bicep. A caption on the screen reads: "Fact: FROSTI is the only person ever to win SURVIVOR before the competition began."

Frosti's youthful self-assurance rubbed some viewers the wrong way. During the month he was in China, Frosti received dozens of letters and e-mails, mostly from younger viewers telling him in so many words that he wasn't all that. During the filming he lost 20 pounds, and despite his best efforts to make strategic alliances with his castmates, he was bounced from the show in week nine, about halfway through. But that's not his main regret.

"I'm kind of pissed they didn't have a challenge that was parkour related," he says.

Parkour has become popular in France, Germany, Australia, and Japan, among other places, but since it's not organized, nobody knows exactly how many people practice it worldwide. It doesn't require a special playing surface or equipment—most traceurs learn from others or simply get started by trying to emulate videos they've seen. It's a highly individual sport, with focus on personal development rather than competition.

Despite the danger seemingly inherent in leaping from buildings and balconies, traceurs suffer injuries at about the same rate as skateboarders and motocross riders—there can be sprained ankles and chipped teeth when things go poorly—according to an ESPN special featuring the Tribe's Ryan "Demon" Ford.

Traceurs emphasize that they practice moves repeatedly before trying them at full speed—injuries are avoided through discipline and precision. Just as martial artists don't start out breaking cinder blocks with their bare hands, traceurs don't start by doing backflips off of ledges.

David Belle, a Frenchman, is considered by many to be the father of parkour. He came up with the name and started practicing his moves on video more than a decade ago. Over the last few years he's helped popularize the sport by posting countless more videos of himself in action on the Internet, and his fans have responded with videos of their own performances, many set to raucous rock and rap music.

But the origins of parkour predate Belle by several generations. In the early 1900s a French phys ed teacher named Georges Hebert began teaching members of the French navy a training technique called the "natural method." Hebert had developed it after a trip to Africa convinced him that strength, speed, and agility were best learned by maneuvering through natural environments. His motto was "Be strong to be useful."

Belle's father, Raymond, picked up the "natural method" while he was in the navy and passed the skills on to his son. But while the elder Belle and his military fellows used them primarily to get to places quickly to rescue people, David Belle practiced them as recreation—a celebration of speed and agility for their own sake. He and Sebastian Foucan helped form a group called the Yamakasi, whose speed runs generated a buzz across France, but the group soon split over what direction to take the sport. Foucan wanted his running to be defined by freedom and personal expression, including, perhaps, acrobatics; Belle thought the focus should be on discipline, on moving efficiently from point A to point B. Eventually parkour became more closely associated with Belle's style, while Foucan's came to be known as freerunning.

After obtaining a black belt in kung fu, David Belle filmed himself practicing parkour, which attracted the attention of filmmakers—first a documentary team and then feature directors. In 2004 he appeared in the hit French film Banlieue 13, or District 13, vaulting down stairwells and leaping between rooftops. The movie inspired many future traceurs, including Washington, D.C., native Mark Toorock.

"When I first saw the movie, I said, 'I just gotta try this,'" Toorock says. Toorock, who owns a D.C. gym called Primal Fitness, is the primary organizer of parkour in this country. He set up the American Parkour Web site, americanparkour.com, which collects news about parkour and freerunning and links to groups around the country. He's also the founder of both the Tribe and the Alliance. Their mission, he says, is not just to promote the sport but also to teach other traceurs how to practice properly—like how to roll out of falls and how to judge what stunts are actually doable.

"The one thing I have against the videos," says Toorock, "is that they don't distinguish between the people like David Belle, who have been practicing it for years, and some jackass who's just jumping off his roof for the first time."

Toorock, though a great force in the field through his marketing of parkour, is in the middle of a debate about the direction it's headed. He's among those who want to turn parkour into a competitive sport, with tournaments and prize money, in the way that some of the martial arts have been. Already competitions are sprouting up around the world in which contestants win points for the stylistic tumbling of freerunning—Frosti's speciality. But other traceurs worry that competition will corrupt what they see as the "old-school" essence of parkour—self-discipline, self-discovery, mastery from within.

Toorock believes in all of those things too, but he doesn't see any reason they can't be accompanied by competition and money.

"Keeping it old-school is kind of OK," Toorock says, "but I don't completely agree with that."

Frosti doesn't either. Instead of fighting the move toward more competition, he says, "I'd rather make sure that it happens right." He thinks that competitive events are inevitable with parkour's rise in popularity, but that it's important to make sure that flash and glamour don't displace the training and discipline at the center of parkour. And he and Toorock are both worried about how it could become commercialized—they've already turned down sponsorship offers from Red Bull, for example, because they think it clashes with the image of parkour as a healthy, demanding sport or art.

Frosti isn't the only traceur who's been featured on stage or screen, but few have reached the audiences he has. More than 15 million people watched just the first episode of Survivor: China, and millions of others have seen him and the other Tribe traceurs in videos or live performances. Over the last few months he's performed in Australia, Lebanon, Hawaii, and cities across the U.S.

Other traceurs aren't fazed by Frosti's celebrity, saying his personality and energy help promote the sport. "Frosti makes an excellent face for parkour because he's just so damn pretty!" jokes Levi Meeuwenberg, a fellow Tribe member who's also appeared on TV, gone on tour, and been interviewed for news stories. "But really, he's got that friendly attitude that welcomes anyone who wants to join in, and that's the best attitude for a traceur to have."

Nor does Frosti mind the camera's gaze, though he emphasizes that his goal is to spread the word about his singular passion. "Everything I do is for parkour," he says.

Back in Oz Park, Frosti and his pals practice their moves and urge each other on. Cody Beltramo, 20, is trying to master the backflip, which, while not central to parkour, is a very impressive maneuver if integrated fluidly. Balancing on the back of a park bench, Beltramo bends forward, then hurls himself backward. A thud signals that he's landed on his feet on the wood chips behind him. Nearby a shirtless Mike "Kipup" Friedman, running at full speed, hurls himself off a small ledge and lands, in climbing position, against a wooden pole. A smile engulfs his entire face.

Frosti, meanwhile, is in the midst of an acrobatic run, jumping the three-yard gap between ten-foot-high wooden play sets, leaping from a crossbar down to the ground, tumbling forward, springing up. With two giant steps, he hurries up a slight ledge and does a side flip in the air. The run leaves Frosti winded but not spent. A few minutes later he does it again.v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com, where you can also watch videos of Frosti and other traceurs in action.

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