Kolbe Helms is flying head first toward the concrete ground of Heritage Park in downtown Columbus.
A handful of onlookers watch as he sails through the air, completes an almost slow motion front flip over a set of stairs, lands deftly on his feet and then does a quick somersault to dissipate some of his forward momentum.
“How was that?” he asks, dusting himself off.
Kolbe isn’t a daredevil. He’s practicing parkour, a decades-old discipline that teaches athletes to navigate an environment as quickly and efficient as possible — sometimes with a few aerial embellishments.
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Kolbe isn’t practicing alone. Training with him are a few other friends, as well as Chase Connors, co-founder of Columbus Parkour and the owner and head couch of LVL UP Parkour Gym on Milgen Road.
“Before, I did gymnastics for the longest time,” Connors said. “And gymnastics is very confined. It’s a very difficult sport, to be sure, but you’re stuck in the gym, whereas with parkour you can really use it almost everywhere, and it has a practical application, too. You can still be athletic, and still do pretty spectacular moves, and you don’t have to be confined to that gym space or those rules.”
Parkour practitioners are known as “traceurs,” with some female athletes preferring the feminine “traceuse.” They use vaults, leaps, jumps, swinging, climbing and balancing to work their way through urban or natural environments.
The sport was born in France in the late 1980s, but gained popularity worldwide as YouTube took off and traceurs began creating videos showing off their skills. In fact, that’s how Connors says he first got involved.
“There was a guy that wanted to make a video, and he had one or two friends who were doing parkour, too,” Connors recalled. “So he basically went on Facebook and sought out other guys who were doing it in the area, and we made this video, and were best friends after that. So we started training together, found the best spots, and that’s how it all started.”
Connors says they look for spots all over Columbus, but mostly train at Heritage Park, Flat Rock Park, Columbus State University and the Chattahoochee RiverWalk.
“We try to be as respectful as we can. If we don’t think we should be training somewhere, we stay away from it,” Connors said.
To spectators, their activities can look odd, dangerous or even foolhardy. But Connors said that’s a misconception, and that most traceurs are very respectful of their communities and their bodies.
“We’re not out there just being wild and crazy,” he said. “That’s not what it is at all. It’s very calculated. We definitely prepare ourselves. Preparation is followed by perfect performance.”
Connors says that anybody can practice parkour, as long as they do so carefully. When asked what advice he’d give to those interested in starting parkour, he said not to be intimidated by YouTube videos.
“You’re basically watching guys who have been doing it for 5 to 10 years, and that’s the result of that many years of training,” he said. “You rarely see guys on YouTube at the beginning level. Everyone can do it to some extent, and you just have to go about it cautiously, and take it in a progressive nature.”
And apart from fitness, Connors said that parkour helps retrain the mind to better think how to overcome obstacles — just as he thinks about how to get over a wall or ledge.
“You become more self-motivated, and you start to look at things differently,” he said. “At same time, you’re inspiring people that watch you, and they think, maybe this is something I might want to try, too.”
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE