This discipline of 'free running'

Although their movements appear effortless, Parkour and Free Running athletes exhibit a great deal of discipline as they navigate over, around and on top of their natural surroundings.

Shelton resident Scott Beckett, 26, and Stratford native Joe Cannato, 27, continuously perfect their flips, twists and climbing skills while conditioning and training at Fairfield’s indoor facility, the Gymnastics and Cheerleading Academy (GCA) Parkour and Free Running Gym at 85 Mill Plain Road.

Recently opened, the spacious gym contains high ceilings, springboard floors and lots of mats so that Parkour athletes, called “traceurs,” can work safely on the trampolines, bars, mats and walls. Cannato, who is a certified Parkour instructor, helps students learn a variety of moves, including how to walk up a vertical incline, flip off of structures, and swing high through the air on a trapeze bar then jump on ledge perched high in the air.

Gymnastics and Cheerleading Academy Director Jane Marella said she opened one side of the Parkour area last November.

“We’ve been in full swing, though, since late spring,” Marella said. The gym measures between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet, she said.

A resident of Trumbull, Marella oversees the program’s 150 students. Although the children vary in age, the students are predominantly boys. Marella said girls tend to continue with gymnastics classes that they began at an earlier age. However, at a certain age, boys feel uncomfortable in those classes.

“Parkour is a way for them for them to continue to explore gymnastics,” she explained. “It’s really great for all kids, though.”

Adults, too, have jumped aboard this latest fitness trend.

“Mothers and fathers are now showing an interest in taking classes themselves,” Cannato said.

Because of the program’s rapid growth since its opening last year, two new classes specifically for teens and adults have been added to Gymnastics and Cheerleading Academy’s schedule.

Cannato described Parkour as an athletic discipline that requires patience and concentration. Both he and Beckett reject the assumption that it’s “an extreme sport.”

“There is a discipline required that allows Parkour athletes to reach a comfort level in the movements so that they become natural,” Cannato explained. “The majority of athletes train at ground level and they don’t move to heights until they feel this level of comfort.”

Additionally, it’s not a competitive sport. In fact, it’s best when two friends, such as Cannato and Beckett, train together.

“You may feel competitive with your self but it’s more about trying to constantly improve upon your own skills,” Cannato said.

Beckett agreed: “It’s more important that you do something correctly and safely,”

Speed and strength are developed gradually, Beckett said.

The two Bunnell High School alums recall casually engaging in Parkour and free running activities as teens.

“For me, it was fun to play with nature and with physics,” Beckett said. “When we do Parkour, we are manipulating the materials around us and trying to use our environment creatively and efficiently. We attempt to get over the obstacles that nature has put in our path.”

Because these movements — running, climbing, jumping — are typically associated with children, Cannato often refers to Parkour as “taking your childhood to the next level.”

About nine years ago, Cannato became more interested in formally learning about this discipline. There weren’t any formal Parkour classes available, so he taught himself the movements by watching videos on YouTube and professional documentaries.

Like many of GCA’s coaches and instructors, Cannato has competed in the preliminary courses in Florida for the sports entertainment television show, American Ninja Warrior.

The assistant director of GCA and director of Parkour is Pedro Legrand of Bridgeport. Along with Cannato, local coaches and instructors are Luis Moco of Fairfield, Murphy Betancourt of Bridgeport, Tom Manning of Fairfield, Tony Are of Trumbull, Jeremy Padillo of Fairfield, and Califf Guzman, of New Haven.

Information about Parkour and free running at the Gymnastics and Cheerleading Academy is available at 203-610-8200.

Beckett, who lives in Shelton with his mother, Beth McNeil, the founding family of Stratford’s McNeil Colonial Builders, said his interest in Parkour grew out of “tapping into” break dancing and martial arts.

“One of the biggest words to describe what Parkour means to me is ‘freedom,’” Beckett said. “It’s a way of life. There’s a harmony present when you practice it.”