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Milton students conquer obstacles in school parkour club

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
May 23, 2011
— High School junior Shane Wehler clung to a pole at a jungle gym at Schilberg Park. He pulled himself around in a circle, hugging the pole like a cat.

Above him, a little girl ran across a play bridge and went down a slide. Wehler was too focused to notice.


For Wehler and three other members of a special after school club in Milton, hanging around on playground equipment is cool. They're the Milton High School parkour club—a group of four students who run, jump and use their whole bodies to conquer just about any obstacle you can think of.


As the club members practiced, a teen hanging out at the park razzed them.


"I heard you used to have 30 kids in your club," he yelled. "What happened?"


"Maybe the rest of them couldn't handle it," Alissa Bratz shouted back.


Not a daredevil sport

Bratz, who teaches foreign languages in the Milton School District, is mentor of Milton High's parkour club.


Bratz is an instructor for a Madison-based parkour group and has led the Milton group for two years. She said Milton is one of just a few schools in the country that has a parkour club.


With a decent pair of shoes and an open mind, any Milton student can learn from Bratz the basics of parkour—a French discipline that combines the body control of martial arts with gymnastics-like maneuvers.


People who practice parkour, known as "traceurs," run, jump, climb and crawl over obstacles as diverse as picnic tables or boulders. It's not a competitive sport. Rather, it's a sort of mind-body art that teaches people to overcome obstacles creatively.


Parkour often is depicted in scenes in action or martial arts movies that show people running over cars, flying off rooftops and traversing complex urban structures with catlike speed and grace. The maneuvers—helicopter spins, flips and other aerial stunts—appear almost impossibly aerobatic.


No one on Milton's parkour club does any of those moves.


"Hours and weeks and months go into that kind of expertise," said Bratz. "It's unfortunate, because a lot of people see these parkour videos on YouTube, and they decide they're going to start by jumping off their garage. That's just unrealistic. And not safe."


Bratz teaches each student in the club the basic moves of parkour. She said she doesn't push students beyond their skill levels.


Bottom line: Not everyone's a ninja—and parkour doesn't require that. Bratz said the point is to use simple body movements to flow like water over obstacles.


"Anybody can fling themselves around. The point, here, is to control your body in small, beautiful ways," she said.


Fitness and philosophy

Sophomore Willy Jewer has been in the parkour club almost two years. Soaked with sweat from practice, he summed up what parkour's like.


"It's really hard. It's definitely not something that you can just become amazing at the first day. You definitely have to make yourself go each week," Jewer said.


Bratz's parkour practices are strenuous. For an hour twice a week, she puts club members through a rubric of running, stretching, calisthenics and yoga.


Her club members jump, climb and use their hands to push themselves over obstacles, repeating over and over movements that are the foundations of parkour. It's a tough workout.


"A few days afterwards, you can be so sore that it's hard to walk down stairs and move around, but in the long run you feel a lot better. Plus, you can explore your environment more fluidly than before," Jewer said.


In some cases, that "exploration" seems almost subconscious. For instance, on the walk between the high school and Schilberg Park, Jewer balanced along a curb in a parking lot. In parkour parlance, it's called "équilibre," a sort of tightrope walk along the peak of an obstacle.


Asked if he ever slips into parkour to spice up mundane activities, Jewer gave a sly answer.


"I don't know. We signed a contract not to do this stuff outside of club, so …"


Confidence and competence

Saraina Adam, a tall, willowy freshman at Milton high, practiced standing long jumps onto a low retaining wall that bordered a playground at the park.


Bratz noticed Adam was struggling with her form, so she rolled onto the ground and told Adam to jump over her. She instructed Adam to gather her momentum for each jump and then tuck her knees as she leapt.


Adam, who joined the club last fall, said learning parkour gives her a feeling of accomplishment.


"It's really hard, but it's way worth it when I finally get something, like a move I've been working on for weeks and weeks," she said.


Through parkour, Bratz said, students also hone problem-solving and creative thinking skills.


"A lot of times in school, we're taught that there's one right answer, and unless you get that answer, it's not OK," Bratz said.


During a jumping exercise, club member Chris Murphy floated over a picnic table feet first, like he was doing a long jump. At the last second, he slapped his hands on the table, pushing himself clear.


Following behind him, Wehler used one hand to push across the table as he swung up his legs and slid sideways through the air. The move looked like a modified car hood slide from "The Dukes of Hazzard."


Bratz said the boys' two moves were twists on one basic maneuver in parkour.


"Parkour allows people to choose their own way to navigate obstacles. We don't ask kids often enough to find their own way out of something. With this, you're free to do that," she said.


Bratz said once people get past learning the basics of parkour, the way they view their surroundings begins to change. The world literally becomes a playground.


"I hope that these students feel that way until they're 80," she said.



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