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Roll, Bounce

After finding meaning in movement, Desheay Jenkins turned his passion for parkour into a business
FLIP FLOP: Desheay Jenkins kicks off a wall and performs a gainer in front of San Jose City Hall. Photo by Harry Who

A boy in a baggy purple shirt and white shorts who looks about 10 years old clambers his way up a ledge and peers down. It's a 15-foot drop to the padded floor below. He concentrates, focuses on his hours of training and jumps.

In the air, his body corkscrews twice, spiraling along multiple axes. A full second passes before the thump on the mat, followed by a smattering of applause. Then, another kid makes the ascent.

Sessions Academy of Motion is San Jose's only gym dedicated to parkour (also known as "freerunning") Today, they're holding a jam, a meet-up event for the Bay Area's aspiring traceurs—practitioners of the sport. About 50 youths from around the Bay Area have come to train with other members of their chosen community.

Derived from the French term for "obstacle course" (parcours du combattant), parkour is, roughly, the art of fluid movement in urban environments. In practice, it looks like a mix of gymnastics and the work of 15th-century shinobi, or ninjas. Traceurs climb walls, vault fences and leap from incredible heights. At Sessions, those who want to become traceurs learn the techniques necessary to perform these maneuvers without breaking their necks.

Developed in France near the turn of the millennium, parkour's roots go back almost a century earlier to naval officer George Hebert's "natural method," a training system developed based on his encounters with African tribesmen. Parkour proper was first unveiled to the public in 1997 as part of a demonstration of Parisian firefighter drills. Most English speakers learned about it in 2006 via James Bond film Casino Royale, which opened with a chase scene starring parkour pioneer Sebastian Foucan, who, in an effort to escape MI-5's man, climbs cranes and dives through tiny holes. The traceurs gathered today in San Jose represent only the sport's third or fourth generation of athletes.

Jams here are held every few weeks. Today, there is a special guest. Among the locals practicing their precisions (jumps), laches (swings) and gainers (backflips) at Sessions is Didi Alaoui, the Moroccan athlete who recently became the sport's world champion.

How he got here is a story that gets to the heart of parkour: its ability to break boundaries and reconnect the lost. And here in San Jose, it all loops back to one man, Sessions Academy's general manager and founding practitioner Desheay Jenkins.

THE CREED

Today, Jenkins runs a successful business, and has close to 19,000 followers on Instagram. But as a kid, he hardly stood a chance.

"Parkour saved my life," he says.

Born into a 10-person home, Jenkins watched his mother struggle with addiction and PTSD. His father wasn't in the picture at all. As a youth, he acted out, getting kicked out of a couple schools.

"I went through wraparound programs and therapy when I was younger, but I neglected all of it," he says.

To get away from it all, he played video games.

When he was 15, Jenkins played a game called Assassin's Creed at a friend's house. In it, players work to uncover a shadowy conspiracy involving the Knights Templar and an ancient Muslim society of assassins. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, the game incorporated a recent trend in the Francophone world: parkour. To traverse the universe of Assassin's Creed, players leapt across rooftops, bounded up walls and flipped over barriers.

"I saw that and was like, 'What is this?'" Jenkins remembers. "Then, I looked up what freerunning was and saw people doing wall flips and all this crazy stuff. When I saw that, I stopped playing immediately and went and started climbing roofs, climbing everything."

As a teenager, Jenkins threw himself into the nascent world of parkour, then still barely distinguishable from other fringe pastimes that had jumped from the internet to IRL, like urban exploration and rooftopping. With little more than YouTube and hours of time on his hands, he taught himself the basics of the sport. At the time, however, he was still just a traumatized kid with few prospects ahead of him. At 18, he was working at a kiosk in the mall when a couple of army recruiters approached him and asked if he ever thought about joining the military. Hell yeah, he told them, and signed up on the spot.

"I just hated where I was in life," Jenkins says. "When I was younger, I just wanted to do infantry, and if I survived that, try out for rangers. And if I survived that, try out special forces. And if I survived that, go into mercenary forces, contractor forces, until I either made a lot of money or somebody killed me."

When he got home and told his girlfriend he had joined the army she burst into tears. She begged him to reconsider, to back out, or at the very least, join the reserves.

"Thankfully I kinda caved in to her demand that I join the reserves," Jenkins says. "Because of that, this path of the gym opened for me."

No longer bound for a distant war, he checked himself into therapy. He began to work through his childhood traumas and took up meditation. The rest of his time he devoted to his first real passion: parkour.

Blessed with an uncommon first name, Jenkins started posting tricks on Instagram as @Desheay. Around the same time, he began to seek out other parkour athletes around the world.

"My first couple times traveling I got very embedded in the pro parkour community," he says. "I really got to know the culture, and felt confident in my understanding of the sport."

Back in San Jose, he started a business, "Parkour Explorations," and made a Wix site to offer lessons, which he taught at local parks around the city. Eventually one of his happy customers asked him to go into business.

"He said we had a 20 percent chance of success, and we're either all in, or not," Desheay remembers. "I said, 'I'm all in.'"

To prove it, he got a tattoo: a large M stretched almost into a triangle, the logo of their first gym, Movement Bay Area.

"That tattoo meant I was either going to make it or it would be my brand of failure," he says.

POSITIVE VIBES: Though he had a rough childhood, Desheay Jenkins has found purpose and happiness through free running. Photo by Harry Who

Fate was on his side—the tattoo now commemorates his success. Though the gym eventually changed its name to Sessions Academy of Movement, he still has the "Movement" tattoo on his left shoulder, just a few inches away from another tattoo, this one over his heart: it's an A, stylized to look like a compass, the logo for Assassin's Creed.

DON'T COMPETE

Ryan couldn't care less about team sports. Soccer, his parents thought, might be different.

"I thought if he scored a goal, he'd really like it," remembers Angel Abiang, Ryan's father.

One morning on the field a perfect opportunity arose.

"Somehow the goalie was out of position, and he was right there. He just had to tap the ball in. I ran over and yelled, 'Kick the ball!'"

Poised for the shot, Angel's son looked at him on the sideline.

"And he just goes, 'Why?'"

It had been the same with baseball and basketball. In basketball Ryan played on the same team as his cousin, who he was close with. Of the sport, he said, "I don't get why we're throwing a ball in a hole that many times. It doesn't matter."

One night while browsing YouTube, the family came across a documentary on parkour. Immediately, Ryan took notice. He sat up, announced (unprompted), that this was the sport he wanted to do. Eventually, his parents found Parkour Explorations and hired Jenkins to start training their son. Today, they are co-owners of Sessions Academy of Motion.

Though he was still a child when he saw that parkour doc on YouTube, intuitively, Ryan picked a sport that aligned with his budding philosophy: Like him, the parkour community was deeply skeptical of competitive professional sports. In his book Free Running: The Urban Landscape is Your Playground, parkour pioneer Foucan calls competition "a limitation and an illusion."

"Our society is highly competitive, and everything we do is about being the best," he writes. "The way of freerunning is different: Freerunning is about constant evolution; it's not about victory or profits."

Foucan groups these observations in a section titled "Don't Compete," wherein he favors child-like exploration over trophies and prizes. The Ultimate Parkour & Freerunning Book, written by three of the sport's early enthusiasts, describes these principles as part of the "theory" of parkour, as established by Foucan and his creative partner David Belle. "Belle & Foucan reject competition in their disciplines and encourage cooperation, which can be much more enriching," they write.

At Sessions Gym, it's clear this lesson has been taken to heart. A different Ryan, a dad with a 12-year-old son on Sessions' team, says that it's this sense of community that keeps them coming to San Jose from the East Bay.

"It's an incredible community," the father says. "It's not really competitive at all, really. Even if you're on the competitive team, it's more like a competitive training team. You're just committed to coming and training, and being a part of the community."

Isn't it, you know, kind of dangerous though?

"I feel that parkour is safer than football," says Jenkins, citing the NFL's alarming concussion stats. "People think that parkour is dangerous because the first thing they look up on the internet are parkour fails. The people in those channels aren't even parkour athletes. They didn't put in the time to learn the technique. If you're doing something you're not prepared for, that's on you as an athlete."

Throughout Saturday's jam, there is a noticeable balance of camaraderie and individuality in the gym, as the aspiring young traceurs compliment, critique and guide each other. Even the more slow-moving kids appear capable of some amazing feats of athleticism, encouraged by a sport that views every object, surface and spatial distribution as a challenge to be conquered—and fabulously dunked upon.

But if parkour strives to be an alternative to the rest of the sporting world, Desheay still sees some degree of competition as necessary to its growth.

"Right now there's not much for an athlete to get out of it," he says. "There's love for it, but you gotta pay rent eventually."

Thus, Sessions' paradoxically non-competitive competitive team.

In recent years, Jenkins and his team have partnered with a number of other gym owners in the area to form the Norcal Youth Parkour League. The league holds eight competitions a year, the first of which comes next Saturday, in the hopes of growing the sport's profile and, eventually, the value of its athletes.

"The people winning the most premiere competitions in parkour right now are only getting, like, $3,000," Desheay says. "I want to be the person that sets people up to get $10,000 when they win a competition. I feel like it's much more valuable to the community and the industry than my just being a super raw athlete."

THE DIDI ROLL

The first time Didi Alaoui attempted a backflip, he landed on his face.

"That was the best feeling," he says, laughing. "I'll never forget that."

Growing up in Oujda, Morocco, near the border of Algeria, Alaoui practically had front-row seat for parkour's first wave.

"I watched a French movie called Yamakasi," he says. "After that, I just tried to be like those guys."

Written by French auteur Luc Besson, Yamakasi was a 2001 thriller starring the real Yamakasi, the original innovators of parkour. In it, the athletes play a group of French youths from the banlieue (ghetto) who use their skills to rob the rich in an effort to pay for a child's heart transplant.

Like Desheay with Assassin's Creed, Alaoui was floored by what he saw in Yamakasi. Immediately, he set about imitating what he had seen on screen. His first backflips were attempted in the bedroom he shared with multiple siblings. Instead of a mat to practice on, he had some pillows.

This past October, Alaoui won Red Bull's "Art of Motion" championship in Matera, Italy, making him the sport's de facto world champion. In addition to landing the highest overall score, he also won the award for Best Trick—a death-defying move he calls a "Double Backside" wherein he jumped backward off a 10-foot ledge, pulled his legs to his chest and twice spun himself end over end before landing on his feet.

"It's something that I believe no one has done before that competition," he says.

Now 24, Alaoui was just 14 when he decided to quit school and devote his time to parkour. Before long, he was posting tricks on YouTube and Instagram. Through the latter, he met another young traceur named Desheay.

From the start, the connection was natural. Both athletes had been children of hardship, and both had found strength in a sport that defied boundaries. And like Jenkins, Alaoui also has a tattoo to remind him of why he pushes his body to the absolute limit, a single word in Arabic running up the right side of his ribcage: "Mom."

"Everything I do is for her,"

Alaoui says.

STRETCH IT OUT: Staying limber a top priority for traceurs like Desheay Jenkins. Photo by Harry Who

At Sessions gym, as the drone camera flies above, it's surprisingly difficult to pick Alaoui out in the crowd of young athletes, all of whom have paid a small fee to spend the day training with the world champion. Standing at about 5 feet, 5 inches, Alaoui fits right in, smiling and giving high-fives as he trades off tricks, and giving pointers to those trying to nail down their technique.

"That's why I'm here," he says. "Not to say 'I'm the best' or whatever. I'm here to share my love, and I'm here to learn. I learn from everyone. Always learn. I think that's the best thing."

In 2017, Alaoui moved to Denmark, where he interned at a school that taught gymnastics, ballet and parkour. Since mid-2019, he has been living in Los Angeles, a move he describes as both good and challenging ("Got my bike stolen, but no complaints," he says). In LA he had to quit his job at a gym to train for the Art of Motion. But since becoming champion, he's been asked back. Instead, he's picked up sponsorships, and (like Jenkins) started teaching parkour one on one.

"I just want to keep doing this," he says. "I love it. Right now, my goal is just to get better, send money to my family and do what I love. And also to come to a place like this, and share my experience, and my love with everyone."

While the money still isn't there for parkour's best athletes, Alaoui has already made his mark on the sport he loves. One of the fundamentals of parkour is the "roll," a move traceurs use to redistribute the energy from a high drop by rolling forward. "This means the energy is dispersed forward and outward rather than back up into your body," writes Dan Edwards, author of The Parkour and Freerunning Handbook.

One particularly graceful roll is performed by spinning at the hip and using the palms to bounce off the ground, moving from one to the other almost like a breakdancer, and continuing to spin until your feet reconnect with the ground.The announcers at this year's Art of Motion rechristened the move, normally called a "hip roll," it after the traceur who made it his own. They called it "The Didi Roll."

FIRST STEPS

Around 4pm things are cooling down at Sessions gym. The drones previously flying overhead have returned to their cases. Parents, harried and unsmiling in their minivans, have come to collect their athletic children.

For Alaoui, however, a family reunion is still a long way off. Flights from LAX to Oujda run upwards of $2,000—practically the entirety of the purse he took home for winning Red Bull's Art of Motion.

"I'd love to go back to Morocco," he says. "I'm world champion, and I didn't get to celebrate with my family and my friends yet."

It is exactly this issue that has motivated Jenkins to organize events like the one in San Jose, to make sure the athletes who perform some of the world's most impressive stunts receive more than just clicks. All of the entry money raised from the San Jose jam will go to Alaoui, covering the cost of his flights to and from LA, and hopefully a little more.

Today, Jenkins has a year left in the army's Inactive Ready Reserve. "Unless World War III happens, I'm done," he says. After a decade of death-defying feats, he has taken a step back from competitions, keeping his focus closer to home. Like Alaoui, family is on his mind. Sessions, he hopes, will one day go to his younger brother, a place he can call his own—something Jenkins never had as a kid.

At Saturday's jam, there is another special guest besides Alaoui. Standing along the sidelines watching is Jenkins' father, who has recently stepped into his life for the first time.

"Nobody expected it," Jenkins says. "It was his first time there."

While the relationship is still in its early stages, he says it's been good so far. Ever the traceur, he's taking it a step at a time and learning the lay of the land.

"Take one step, see for yourself how it feels," reminds Foucan, parkour's founding father and greatest philosopher. "I have fears just like everyone else, but without those first few steps and a little courage, freerunning would not exist."

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