A biting wind picks up across the exposed grounds of Rishon Lezion’s Gan Ha’ir park. A bright sun counteracts its effect, but you can still see afternoon strollers pulling their coats just a little bit tighter. Three young men, however, are stripping down, throwing top layers aside as they put themselves through a pre-workout warm up.

“There are a few parts of the body that are very important to warm up,” explains Yan Shopin, 18, of Rishon Lezion. “As in soccer, we use our legs a lot so you need to focus on joints – especially knees and ankles.”

Shopin, Jerry Yanikov, 18, of Haifa, and Ido Feldbaum, 17, of Holon, are traceurs, athletes who practice the French-originated sport of parkour.

Their training sessions are spent running, leaping, jumping and sometimes flipping and rolling. Anything and everything it takes to get past obstacles and make it from point A to point B in as little time as possible.

Unlike free-running, which incorporates more self-expression and aesthetic aspects in its execution, parkour is less about show and more focused on efficiency. Says Shopin, “Both contain similar movements but for different goals – in parkour, you try to pass the obstacle as fast as you can. In free-running, you are not trying to pass the obstacle as quickly or effectively as possible, but to do it in the way that you want. If I have a high wall in parkour, I run at it and climb onto it. In free-running, maybe I will flip from the wall or do another movement.”

The crossover between parkour and free-running is sometimes hard to discern.

As Yanikov explains, “parkour comes in many different styles.” Like Shopin, he says that while some people try to get from point A to B as fast as they can, “there are people who like to do it in the nicest way possible, and to add as much style as possible along the way.” It is much like art, Yanikov says. “There are artists who like to paint things that look more realistic and there are artists who like to draw all sorts of objects and to express them in the picture.”

Dressed in baggy sweats and oversized T-shirts, Shopin, Yanikov and Feldbaum look like regular teenagers – kids you would see walking around the mall or hanging out at the cinema.

Shopin sports highlighted hair, Feldbaum has ear piercings and Yanikov is clean-cut. But unlike most of their peers, these three view the urban landscape in a different light.

“I see more potential in things in the environment around me that I wouldn’t think of that way if I didn’t train,” Shopin says. “I would see a regular place as every person sees it – just the building that they built.”

Yanikov nods in agreement, then adds, “We search for a place that will give us as much creativity as possible.

When we see things like, for example, a pole, we imagine how many things we can do with it.”

Not all training is done on the streets; at times it is done in gymnasiums at places like the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Center for Physical Education and Sport, in Netanya, or at the Hadar Yosef Sports Center in Tel Aviv. Both house facilities where flips and new techniques can be practiced in relative safety, against mats and padded walls.

THE GROUP has gathered around a strategically located stairwell at one end of the city hall courtyard. They climb up the side of a wall to check it out. Feldbaum does a flip off the side. Shopin jumps next and takes a tumble. “You see,” he says, as he sits on the ground rotating his ankle, “we’re supposed to begin [each training session] with simple things so that we do not get injured, and I did too big a jump right at the start.” He grins somewhat sheepishly as he gets back up.

Passersby watch the group of traceurs as they walk by the stairwell.

No one seems especially bothered by what they are doing, but people do appear to give them the once-over.

“Sometimes people do tell us, ‘not here,’” Feldbaum says.

“Yeah, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone tells us to move,” Shopin adds. Sure enough, several minutes later, a security guard comes out of the front doors of city hall. He approaches the group.

“Guys,” he says humorlessly, and gives them a look as he makes a shooing gesture with his arms.

The group gathers its things and walks off in search of another spot.

“We never come in the mind-set of vandalism,” Yanikov adds. “We always respect the environment we are in and leave everything exactly as we found it.” But the bottom line, according to all three, is that people do not understand what it is they are doing.

The group stops at a small fountain halfway across the park, where a street vendor selling an assortment of trinkets has set up temporary shop nearby. The man watches the three intently, especially once they begin to leap and jump.

“My heart misses a beat when I see this, but what can I say, in my nature nothing bothers me,” the whitehaired man says when asked what he thinks. “I’ll tell you something,” he adds. “I have a friend, and he has a child just like this who jumps from roofs at night and at school he jumps from the tables, and the principal is always running after him because the boy turns it into a circus…” Shopin notices the conversation and walks over. “What was the reaction?” he asks, smiling.

The vendor’s statement is typical, and all three traceurs admit to having come across similar remarks. As Feldbaum says, “There are people who see us in the street when we train and they say, ‘ahh, that’s parkour – it’s jumping from roofs, right?’ And they are wrong.”

And it is not only the public who carry this misconception; parents also seem to have a hard time understanding what parkour is – at least at the beginning.

“At first my parents thought that parkour was jumping from roofs and they were against it,” remembers Feldbaum, who began training at age 13. “They thought it was dangerous.

But with time, I showed them it is not jumps from roofs. I explained to them that every jump we do, we first check that we are safe. Today, they are okay with it, they have gotten used to it.

Still, sometimes they are afraid that something will happen.”

Jane Krepostnoy, 16, of Karmiel, is one of the few female traceurs in Israel. She has been training in the sport since the age of 11. “Friends call me Parkour Girl,” she says, when asked how she is accepted in a sport that, in Israel, is mostly male-dominated.

“Girls ask me to train them sometimes, and boys ask me to train with them sometimes.” Krepostnoy says she considers both reactions to be compliments.

Just like the others, Krepostnoy says her parents initially struggled to understand what parkour was.

“At first, they were kind of against it because they didn’t know what it was,” she says. “But I slowly explained to them and invited them to my training.

Now they support me because they see it is a sport, but they worry for me and say to be safe.”

Dvir Rozen is the founder of Street Art Production (S-A-P), a production and management company promoting events in areas such as parkour, breakdance, hip hop, rap and beatboxing.

At age 30, he is what would be considered a grizzled veteran of the parkour arena. “From a young age, I would walk on the path and jump on walls and all sorts of obstacles along the way,” he says. “I liked to climb on things, climb on trees. I did parkour but I didn’t know it was called parkour.”

A similar story is told by Shopin.

“As a kid, I loved to climb and jump.

I always went with this friend – we would climb on roofs. One day he told me he saw this film, Yamakasi, an action film [by Luc Besson] and the people in it practice parkour.”

Shopin and his friend began watching parkour videos on YouTube and going out to practice what they saw.

Speaking with traceurs in Israel, it becomes apparent that in addition to Yamakasi – which nearly all of them mention – YouTube and the Web have been major facilitators in the spread of the sport. “One day I saw parkour on the Internet, and I started to watch videos and read about it,” Krepostnoy says, when asked how she got started.

Denis Rizikov, 25, is one of the Israeli parkour community’s leaders and founder of the Israel Parkour Team (IPT), which operates under the umbrella of S-A-P. Rizikov says he was already a trained gymnast when a friend brought up Yamakasi.

“Someone told me about this film with guys climbing on buildings, so I watched it. I realized it was a group of guys who really did it as a sport, and I said ‘that’s mine!’ Then I called a friend and we went out and started training.”

In addition to giving the sport its local start, the Web has also kept it going globally. “Our community is based on YouTube,” Yanikov explains. “Every traceur in the world knows the others, and many try to help each other through forums and the Web.”

Yanikov is founder of Mental Motion, a group that works in cooperation with S-A-P and whose focus is parkour training and education. He says things have changed drastically since he first got into the sport.

“When we started, there was no one on a professional level in Israel, there was no one to show us what to do,” he explains. Today, he notes, there is “a big community” base whose members are there to help and support one another.

And while those who do not understand may continue to look askance at this urban sport, athletes say it provides them with many positive lessons that carry over into life. “If I climb on a roof, I’m on the top of the world, but then you look at the world and realize you need to train and practice or you won’t get anywhere,” Rizikov says. “I can get stuck on one wall and jump wall to wall for hours, until I succeed in overcoming the obstacle.”

“It is more than just a sport,” Krepostnoy emphasizes. “It is a way of life.” She tells of a certain forward flip that she had only attempted in a matted gymnasium. Then someone suggested she try it in sand at the beach. “Before that, I didn’t think I would even try it outside, but then I did. The landing wasn’t perfect. But it was more that I had the courage to do it.”

Rozen says this unwavering determination to succeed is part of parkour’s positive effect on youth. “It is both a physical discipline and a mental discipline,” he explains. “It strengthens the body and it lets you do things that you didn’t think you could do in the past. Through parkour, you learn about the body, mind and soul. You work them together. You realize you can overcome any obstacle.”

THE LATE afternoon sun is making its curtain call.

Local children have come out with their parents to catch a few final moments at the neighborhood playground. And Shopin, Yanikov and Feldbaum are making a special appearance themselves, one that seems to be leaving a big impression on a few young minds.

“Ohhh, wow!” one boy yells, as he watches Shopin launch himself airborne into a flip from a standing position atop the swing set. A small crowd of tiny people has gathered.

The traceurs take a break and the boy, seven-year-old  Shahar Shaked, runs to climb atop a tube slide. He straddles it as he talks. “I like to do sports and I like to ride without training wheels,” he announces. ”Watch, I can jump,” he says, but Shahar stays put. “‘One day I will do what they do.” He climbs down and skips away, but not before doing a series of cartwheels off to the side.

Then Shahar comes running back.

“Can you do more things?” he asks Yanikov. “It’s just so cool!” Yanikov smiles. “Keep practicing and when you get to be our age, you will be much better than us.”

It is getting cold and dark. The traceurs once again gather up their things before heading for the central bus station. Yanikov talks about Shahar. “That boy is an excellent example of what I said before: that as kids, we are running and jumping,” he explains.

“When people tell us, ‘parkour is not natural,’ I usually reply, ‘You have forgotten how to have fun, to run and to be free. Look at your children when you are parents.

They run and jump as you once did.’ Well, that’s what we do. We are enjoying this again.”

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