“I’m really nervous, I’m a total beginner. I’ve never done this before at all.” One of the first women to register on Saturday morning at Canada Water seemed a little anxious. We reassured her with words and dried fruit. A few hours later, she was on top of a wall looking out over a massive drop, having spent the morning learning to stride, jump, land safely, vault and underbar. By lunchtime, she looked like she was having the time of her life.
I was with Group A, composed of women who considered themselves beginners to parkour. I felt like I spent the morning watching doubts and fear melt in the sunshine, as people faced heights, climbed across gates, jumped benches and learned to play again. When we were nervous, we helped each other. When we were exhausted, we encouraged each other to keep going.
“I can’t help but feel like I’m doing all the stuff you’re told not to do when you’re little,” said one. “It’s like being a kid again” said another, with a grin that could have lit up a room. I still smile when I think about it.
When I joined up with Group D after lunch, we kept playing. I thought I would feel out of place here – I’m not what you’d call advanced. They reassured me with words (but no dried fruit), and before I knew it I was helping a small group to create a route over and around rails, up and down walls and rolling around. When it came time to show off our creation to the rest of the crew, I felt like we’d built something awesome together.
The final Saturday session was a conditioning challenge. After a full-on day of training, we found ourselves monkey-walking backwards up a substantial hill (or squat jumping, for those of us with shoulder or wrist problems) in between hill sprints. We had twenty minutes to complete five circuits. Those who finished first didn’t stop for a break. It was right back into the fray to encourage those still going.
Sunday was more play interspersed with not a little bit of pure fear, as I joined group B (intermediate) for some routes in the Chainstore before heading outside to try something a little disconcerting – running around East India Basin in bare feet. I don’t think I’m the only one who felt oddly vulnerable without shoes. We could feel the rainwater, the sharp gravel, the smooth concrete and the slippery surfaces of benches and railings. Comfortable? No, not really – but new experiences often aren’t. Stripping off the armour of our shoes taught us how to place our feet naturally and well, and showed us what our environment really feels like. They may be comfortable and safe, but shoes are blindfolds for our feet.
Our next session was also about seeing things in a different way. Fizz led us through a series of movements around a rail. In parkour, a railing is usually a challenge to be overcome as part of a route. You get over it, or under it, and you move on to the next thing. It’s in your way. It’s often a bit scary, too – railings are hard, and slippery, and will crack you in the shins if you let them. This time, things were different. The rail became a partner in a complex dance, which was pure joy. Thanks for sharing that little bit of magic, Fizz.
Participants split into three groups for the afternoon modules. I found myself back with a mix of mainly groups A and B for a session on pull up training.
Pull ups are kind of a holy grail for a lot of women. When you have never done one, it seems completely unattainable to haul yourself up that far with your arms. Personally, I tried and failed for years until someone got me using a resistance band – which is precisely what Shirley taught us to use, along with negatives (lowering yourself down from the top position), to get the full pull up. Not only does this work, but how can anything involving a giant elastic band be anything less than brilliant?
I don’t think anyone will ever forget Andy’s cryptically named “group challenge” module. Have you ever dragged 560kg of tire across a room ten times while your teammates scream “THREE, TWO, ONE, PUULLLL” as loudly as they can? No? How about carry all the kettlebells across the room and back? You’re missing out. I’m not sure whether it makes you physically stronger, but I can certainly testify that it made me smell stronger.
And then it was the last session. Fear. We were asked what scares us, and there was a multitude of answers – height. Edges. Injury. Height. Failure. Smashing our teeth out. Height. Guess which of these we were facing up to today?
Perched on a support beam in the middle of the skeleton of an old electrical bridge, I should have been terrified. I remember crying and shaking like a leaf the first time I was asked to move along a high wall, and this was worse – only narrow metal beams to hold, a drop over murky water and no spotter to stick by me and talk me down. Instead, I was completely at peace. There was sun shining above me, water rippling peacefully below and I could hear the chatter of the rest of my group spaced along the structure, clambering over the giant gate (helpfully labelled “danger of death,” of course) or calming down after their climb. I was home.
Sorry about that, Blane. I guess you’ll have to try harder to scare me next time.
The weekend ended with some discussion on how to encourage more women to try parkour. There was mass agreement that we need more visibility – women are rarely portrayed as actively participating in sport. Instead, we are pictured standing around in bikinis or watching men do things. Passive. Decorative.
If we agree that we need more images and video of women at all levels of training practicing parkour, I can only see one solution. We have to make that happen. Nobody is going to do it for us. We can’t stand around and look nervously at each other and say “well… someone should do that, but not me. I’m not good enough.” There are thousands of women in the UK alone who would like to be more active, but need encouragement to take the first step. Everyone who was present at WIPW has taken that step, whether they have been training for years, or this was their first time. Please create images, create videos, tag #SheCanTrace and #SeeAndDo and reach a hand out to those women. They need you.