Bionic plan: Ian Anderson 'kongs' over a picnic table at SJSU. (Click here to see a full-size image of Ian 'konging.')
Parkour has come to the South Bay, bringing the concrete gymnastics of the fledging extreme phenomenon to San Jose's urban jungle. But for one member of the local crew, mere mortal powers aren't enough.
Words and pictures by Felipe Buitrago
ANYONE WHO ever wanted to be a superhero, raise your hand. Yes, it may sound a bit childish now, but at some point most of us wanted to climb a wall, or leap tall buildings in a single bound. It was what we laid in bed at night thinking about, and what we dreamt of in class.
For some, that dream never dies. Some of us channel it into skateboarding, BMX dirt jumping, rock climbing, or some other opportunity to get extreme.
Even so, extreme is never quite extreme enough. There's always something new on the horizon that promises us to take us higher. The latest last exit is a sport that came from the suburbs of Paris and has now made its way to San Jose: parkour. You may not know the name, but you've probably seen it, even if you didn't know it.
The French name translates loosely to "the art of displacement." And of the goal of parkour is to move from one place to another in the most effortless way possible despite whatever obstacles one may encounter.
Parkour was first used by French soldiers in Vietnam as a way to improve their mobility in the harsh jungle environment. One of these soldiers passed the techniques on to his son, David Belle. He in turn meshed his father's obstacle-course training with his studies of martial arts and gymnastics, which has resulted in the modern day art of displacement.
Scale models: Ken Kao and Ian Anderson use parkour techniques to maneuver around buildings in San Jose. (Click here to see a full-size image of Ken and Ian atop the Convention Center.)
Recently parkour has become a full-fledged phenomenon, finding its place not only in the urban jungle but on the big screen as well. In the now-famous opening chase of this year's Casino Royale, Sébastien Foucan took James Bond and the audience through every nook and cranny of a 40-story building under construction, jumping through holes, and from crane to crane, and then some. Foucan was part of the founding parkour community, but he moved on to what is called "free running," which is fundamentally a version of parkour based more on acrobatics than efficiency.
South Bay Superhero
The sport is still young in the South Bay, much like its practitioners. Matt Trinidade, along with a few others, has put together a team of athletes that get together at least once a week to train and practice basic moves like transferring weight into a rolling maneuver after a high drop to relieve stress on the joints from the impact. Stretching is also important, as many of the stunts require a great deal of flexibility. Sessions are held bright and early, in as many different locations as possible. The idea is to learn how to conquer each and any obstacle.
But it's Ryoga Vee who gives this budding sport superhero dimensions. In an eye-catching black and red–schemed outfit from his Oakley sneakers to his Lawrence of Arabia–style headdress, Vee is as audacious as he is athletic. And rest assured that this has been his everyday attire since his teenage years. His parents pointed out way back then that the outrageous attire was not likely to help him get a job, but for Vee there is no reason to wear " slacks and a button-down just to blend in."
"If this is how I feel inside, why can't I express myself like this outside?" he asks.
Flipping brilliant: Ryoga Vee practices his parkour on Market Street. (Full-size version)
Vee has a background in theatrics and dance, but more importantly, he is still literally living the superhero dream most of us gave up years ago.
"I want to get as close as possible to being a superhero," he says.
He's gone so far as to audition for the Sci-Fi Channel's newest reality show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, for which he unfortunately was not cast—because, he claims, his character was, "too deep." "You have to be two-dimensional—'I'm skinny and fast, and that's it,'" he says.
Vee's vision is more complex than that. It can be found in Perfect Unity, the comic he has been writing for the past several years.
The story starts with an alien bug, a symbiotic creature, that arrives on planet Earth and finds an average run o' the mill guy to be his host. The protagonist tries relentlessly to remove the bug with no luck; instead, he starts developing powers like ESP through touch. Just as trouble starts when a ruthless doctor secretly working for the government discovers the alien, the hero's powers begin to grow.
Going vertical: From top to bottom: Ryoga Vee, Eric Sundstrom and Nick Elias climb parkour-style. (Full-size version)
Despite his artistic ambitions, Vee is willing to meet fame halfway. He's already looking forward to the next audition with a new, simpler character, which allows him to incorporate his Parkour skills.
"I want to call him 'Traceur'," says Vee—that's the original name for someone who practices Parkour. "He'll have indestructible bones from drinking milk all his life, or radioactive milk, or something, just not too complicated."
The bottom line is that being a superhero is a way of life: some read about it, some live it. Vee doesn't just want to be a superhero—he thinks he already is.
"I can't fly," he says, "but I can goddamn jump!"
Vee might not have the traditional unassuming alter ego, but he does have a day job, writing code for a video game company.
In his virtual world, anything goes, but in the real world parkour athletes really do get hurt. And thankfully for Ryoga, there is Ken Kao, a 23-year-old chiropractics student who has been doing parkour for about four years and now tries to educate parkourists on safety. Toward the end of a recent session, he performed a demonstration on Ryoga's ankle to show how stretching and taking care of ligaments and joints before, during and after practice will reduce the risk of injury.
Like any superheroes, the South Bay parkour crew has to deal with its enemies. Just like J. Jonah Jameson hated Spider-Man, security guards aren't too found of parkourists. In a world where slipping in front of the public library might entitle the "victim" to an exorbitant amount of cash, the liability stakes of someone—even if willfully—climbing a wall or jumping from rooftop to rooftop Sandman style are pretty high.
But according to Trinidade, the San Jose Police Department has actually been quite friendly, and on occasion police have stuck around to watch while he and others vault or "double kong" across picnic tables at SJSU or elsewhere.
Ian Anderson practices his moves, including a handplant-spin over local parkour organizer Matt Trinidade. (Full-size version of Ian in front of the Convention Center) (Full-size version of Ian practicing his handplant-spin over Matt)
"It's the rent-a-cops that give us a hard time," he says.
So to make sure they don't run into trouble, the training sessions are usually held five minutes past the crack of dawn. They all agree that it's the only time they can practice without being threatened with arrest.
"If we did it at night we'd look like cat burglars," says Trinidade.
As long as we don't end up seeing "No Parkour" signs next to the other long list of prohibitions over the "wet floor" cones, count on Vee and his less flamboyant (but no less daring) fellow athletes to continue to raise the visibility of parkour locally.
Meanwhile, he'll continue to put his superpowers to good use, harnessing parkour to achieve his one true goal and live the dream.
"All I've ever wanted to do is have my life portrayed in Marvel Comics."
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