Sébastien Foucan is unstoppable. Or, to put it a better way, he just doesn’t stop. At the London gym where he teaches classes, While MF’s editor Nick Hutchings and I wait for our photographer to set up, the founder of freerunning is rìcocheting off the walls, swinging from scaffolding and bouncing over vaulting-horses just for the fun of it.
He moves like a videogame character – no wasted movement, every motion looking slightly unreal. Nick and I are probably the most acrobatic members of the MF team – Nick thanks to years of skate and snowboarding, me viajudo – but it’s difficult to see how we’ll keep up.
You may remember Foucan from his role in Casino Royale, Where the opening foot-chase saw him clambering and vaulting his way across a construction site head of lumbering (in comparison) Daniel Craig. Or from documentary Jump London, in which he leaped across HMS Belfast and the Royal Albert Hall. Or possibly from Dancing On Ice, the ITV reality show that saw him suffer a shock elimination in week three.
Between his media engagements, he’s seen the sport of freerunning grow by literal leaps and bounds, as young traceurs (as exponents call themselves) compete on YouTube or in live competitions or land ever-more inventive moves. This is where Foucan’s style sets itself apart from the more traditional ‘parkour’. The latter, invented by Foucan’s friend David Belle, emphasises simply moving from one point to another as quickly and efficiently as possible, while freerunning encourages flips, spins and other tricks.
The pair had a mild falling-out over the semantics and now the sports have a clear gulf between them. ‘Freerunning is an extension of what I did with David,’ explains Foucan. ‘It’s an expression of yourself in your environment with no limitation. You can incorporate your style, you can incorporate gymnastics, capoeira, breakdancing. Anything.’
That doesn’t mean the sport is limited to rubber-limbed teenagers, Foucan is quick to point out. ‘You can be three years old or 70 and you can do it. If you just say, “I want to do what I can do right now with my body,” you’ll do well. It’s not about learning. It’s re-learning what we’ve forgotten. Society has conditioned us to move a certain way but if you look at children moving they do things naturally. I always say children are the masters.’
To digest this idea, we warm out with some easy tumbling and rolls over low boxes, where the only point is not to land on our heads. Next are forward rolls, then there’s cat-crawling, leaping and some drills designed to make sure we’re landing properly – simple stuff, but the gulf in efficiency between Foucan and us is obvious. He barely makes a noise when he moves and absorbs kinetic energy like a cat. I do OK, but feel like an oaf in comparison.
We finish with some burpees, efficiency again taking priority over speed. Soft landings and effort-free takeoffs are the key, and wasted movement is a big no-no.
UP AND OVER
Next up is vaulting. This is the aspect of freerunning that appeals to me -the bit that promises to let me leap fences, avoid crowds, evade muggers and traverse whole cities in a straight line, point A to point B. Vaults come in a variety of styles, the appropriate one for any situation being determined by what you’re hurdling, how fast you’re moving and how cool you want to look. First up is the cat vault: both hands on the box at once, feet through the middle for a nice, low-risk leap. Next is the speed vault, a one-handed variation with a bit of sideways lean. It looks easier but is actually slightly tougher. especially at a full sprint, which is what it’s designed for. I bounce off the box on my first attempt, mildly thankful that I’m not trying this on a brick Wall above unforgiving pavement.
Next up is the ‘tic-tac’, which involves using a bounce off a wall to get extra height for clearing an obstacle. We start with tiny, precise foot-touches on the wall, then aim to clear a foam pad that’s barely shin-high. not long before we’re trying to clear the biggest thing in sight- a vaulting-horse shoved up against the wall.
We start trying vault variations, of which there are dozens, from the ‘Kong’ (a long jump where you put your hands down only just before landing) to the ’underbar’ (used for going underneath fences or barriers). It’s getting a bit dangerous, so Foucan calms things down with some precisìonjumping: leaping from a mat onto a thin rubber beam that’s barely raised off the floor, then between more mats staggered like stepping – stones across a pond. Excess energy and aggression are counter-productive here, which is the point.
It’s tempting to think you can emulate all the YouTube videos of freerunners launching off buildings, but those guys – or at least, the ones Who don’t fall foul of natural selection via exploded knees – have put in hours of practice on easier, saferjumps first. Or, as Foucan puts it, ‘to start safely is to listen to your rhythm, your level, not to try to impress people. You can fall and damage yourself. but if you do it in the right way, it’s very healthy.’
OFF THE WALL
Foucan himself is the best advert for freerunning. He’s 38 and still has a six-pack, which he maintains on a strict regime of no sit-ups, ever. ‘I’m in great shape because I respect the “always in motion” concept.’ he says, don’t go to the gym. As soon as I’m playing, I enjoy it.’ He is also capable of insane feats. At one stage, while we’re setting up an outdoor photo, he casually takes a run-up at a wall, bounces off one foot, latches onto a ledge and propels
himself over it, all without any visible signs of effort. After coming back down to earth, he shrugs.
’Because climbing, moving all the time, that’s what my body’s adapted to. I try to be very fluid, very connected with the environment. You become like an animal, transform yourself into an animal.
‘For me, this is the point of freerunning. I’m never going to front-flip off a balcony or vault across Tower Bridge, but I might need to clear a fence at speed or make a difficult jump without breaking an ankle. If fitness is supposed to be about improving your quality of life, which I think it is, then being able to move quickly and efficiently fits right in. And if it carves you a six-pack, so much the better.’
Watch the first part of MF’s session with Foucan here.