Australia

Men may have started it, but Sydney's women are making giant leaps in parkour

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Parkour may have traditionally been associated with men jumping between buildings, but in Australia, that's all changed.

Stephania Zitis has never liked conventional sports.

Instead she leaps, rolls and jumps over concrete - for fun.

In Sydney’s Foundation Park, a hotspot for training parkour, she runs and vaults over a two-metre wall, lands quickly before scaling over another.

It’s incredible to watch, but it’s hard not to flinch.

Stephania Zitis trains at the AAPES gym in Sydney.
Stephania Zitis trains at the AAPES gym in Sydney.

Parkour has its origins in French military training and gets its name from the French word parcours meaning 'route' or 'course’. It involves moving rapidly through a space - typically in an urban setting - while negotiating obstacles.

Stephania is part of the growing number of Australian traceuses – otherwise known as women who train parkour - and she wants to see more.

“When I first started there weren't very many women. There was probably like one or two, and we didn't really know each other either, so it felt like a lot of us were on our own,” she told SBS News. 

She says it’s only been in the last two years that “girl groups” who do parkour, really kicked off.

Parkour's physicality and audacity has meant it's been dominated by men for years, with more extreme examples of jumping between buildings and scaling walls going viral. 

It’s meant uptake by women was slow, with many dismissing it as too dangerous.

Stephania, Michaela, Chandra and Lina rest in between runs.
Stephania, Michaela, Chandra and Lina rest in between runs.
Supplied

Despite training for years, Stephania says her family still gets worried from time to time.

"My mum and my grandparents get really scared for me. They get worried that it's dangerous but I'm always reassuring them that I'm fine.”

Lawyer-by-day, traceuse-by-night, Michaela Smith claims the discipline is misunderstood.

“I think a lot of women don't understand that parkour isn't about crazy roof gaps, and it's not about trying to get the biggest jump possible," the 26-year-old said. 

“It's about overcoming obstacles, and getting from A to B in the efficient way possible." 

Michaela Smith conquering the wall.
Michaela Smith conquering the wall.
Supplied

To train parkour, the women go in search across Sydney for public places with lots of obstacles.

Seats, bollards, railings, staircases – you name it – are just some of the objects used to leap on, roll over, and ricochet off.

Leaping over concrete obstacles is a big part of parkour.
Leaping over concrete obstacles is a big part of parkour.
Supplied

Macquarie University's Kath Bicknell, who studies women in extreme sports, says the overarching values of parkour are less about being dangerous or brazen, and more about being creative, adaptive, and free.

"Parkour is not as dangerous as it looks from the outside,” she told SBS News.

“Part of it is looking at a challenge and breaking down the risk, and then building up the skills to mitigate those risks.”

'If there's a wall, I can climb it'

Michaela says it's taking risks that makes participants feel empowered.

"My favourite thing about parkour is how strong and powerful and confident it makes me feel, and how much that carries over into my normal life."

She acknowledges lots of young women, herself included, are nervous to walk home at night, or be alone in a bar.

She says parkour has helped her overcome those fears.

The girls do strength training in the gym.
The girls do strength training in the gym.
Supplied

“I’ve found that any situation that I’m in, if I’m feeling scared, I kind of know that I can escape.

“If there's a wall, I can climb it and run away,” Michaela said.

Empowering women around the world

The rise in traceuses is not just happening in Australia.

Women across the world are participating in parkour with some saying they see it as a way to feel in control of their bodies.

In Egypt,  a group of women train every week in an abandoned park in Cairo, challenging the country’s conservative social norms. Iranian women have begun a similar group, they too pushing back against restrictive stereotypes.

In Sydney, 16-year old Lina Mansour, a practicing Muslim, says her faith has never stopped her.

“My parents have always been supportive. My sister has a black belt in karate so they’re used to us girls being active.”

Lina Mansour is training to be a parkour instructor.
Lina Mansour is training to be a parkour instructor.
Supplied

But she knows it's not so easy for others.

"Within the Muslim community, you don't really find that many Muslim girls doing parkour. It's not as if they don't want to do it, but I feel like it's more they don't think they can."

Lina is training to be a parkour instructor at the Australian Academy of Parkour, Exercise and Defence, and she hopes to encourage more young women to try it out.

 "I want to try to get 10, even 12 [female members] - like really build it up. I hope that women are able to more confidently show up, instead of hesitantly trying it out."

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Women taking giant leaps in parkour.
Women taking giant leaps in parkour.

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