|Watson Fellow Will Follow Physical and Mental Trail of Parkour Around the Globe
March 22, 2010
Contact: Bill Giduz
|Evitt's specialty on the Davidson track team is the steeplechase.
As a youngster in Somerville, Mass., Blake Evitt was the kid leaping over trash cans and grappling up fences as he ran through the neighborhood. They called it "play."
Now it's called "parkour," and Evitt , a senior at Davidson, has received a $25,000 grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation for a year's study of this increasingly popular form of physical training in several countries around the globe.
He is one of 40 Watson Fellows selected this year from American liberal arts colleges and universities to explore topics as varied as policewomen in the Islamic world, medicinal plant markets, geothermal energy, open-fire cooking, large-format photography, and creek boating. "These awards are long-term investments in people, not research," said Cleveland Johnson, director of the Watson Fellowship Program. "We look for passionate learners, creative thinkers, and motivated self-starters likely to lead or innovate in the future and give them extraordinary independence to pursue their interests outside of traditional academic structures."
Parkour is a non-competitive, physical discipline that sprang from the Parisian suburban housing projects in which participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible, as if moving in an emergency situation. It trains the body and mind to react appropriately and quickly to obstacles by running, jumping, vaulting, climbing, balancing, and quadrupedal movement. Skilled practitioners, called "traceurs," typically practice in urban areas like gyms, parks, playgrounds and abandoned buildings.
Evitt said parkour provides him a challenging blend of skills he has long enjoyed as a dancer and competitive track and cross country runner.
He first learned about it through his host family during a post-high school gap year he spent in France. He said, "They were insistent to expose me to all aspects of French culture, and we watched French movies about every other night. One of them was a parkour film and I was immediately hooked on it."
Two years later as a sophomore in a Davidson French class, he wrote a paper about it. Last summer he received an Abernethy Grant from the college to spend several weeks in Paris with several of the founders of the parkour movement, filming and studying their training sessions and efforts to establish a parkour academy. That experience provided enough material for a senior thesis he is now writing.
"They're the most incredible athletes I've ever met," said Evitt, who not only documented the practice in Paris, but also trained with some of the athletes. "They were the hardest practices I've ever endured, but also the most fun I've ever had at ‘practice'!" he said. "One day they took me out for a six-hour training session!"
Evitt is an accomplished athlete in his own right. He ran track and cross country in high school, and was accepted onto the Davidson team as a walk-on his freshman year. He runs the 800 and 1,500 meter races on the track, and his interest in parkour has also led him to become the team's steeplechase specialist. That 3,000-meter race includes leaping over 28 hurdles and seven water barriers. ""I like to spice things up a little, and steeplechase is challenging and interesting," Evitt said. "I feel more at home in that race than just going round and round the track."
His best time in the event so far is 9:38, and he hopes to break the school record of 9:26 in his final meets for Davidson this spring.
His obligations to the team have limited his practice of parkour during the school year. But he'll have plenty of time for practice during his Watson year.
He also hopes to extend scholarship in parkour. While there is ample material on parkour in France and England, Evitt will be the first to take a firsthand global look at the practice. His proposal includes parkour study in England, Denmark, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Australia and New Caledonia. Many of his contacts in those countries are traceurs he met last summer in France.
He'll also be observing a pivotal time in parkour history. What began little more than a decade ago as an independent, rogue activity has become more structured, competitive and commercialized through exposure on television and in movies, and sponsorship by large corporations like MTV, Puma and Barclays Bank.
"It's good and bad," Evitt offered. "While some traceurs want to keep it pure, others have found an opportunity they never would have had otherwise to make a living in movie stunt work and shows like Cirque du Soleil."
Evitt also wants to investigate whether parkour can achieve its aspirations as an agent of positive social change. Parkour academies have been established in France and England to train young people from low-income housing projects. At least one has financial backing from the national government. "Practicing the discipline can help motivate kids who don't have many opportunities available," Evitt said. "It can provide kids with self-confidence and help them make smarter decisions."
Evitt, who has served at Davidson as president of the Sports Marketing Association and campus manager of a t-shirt enterprise, will return from his Watson year to undertake graduate studies at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.
He hopes eventually to bring his higher education and international parkour experience back home where it all started for him - exploring his neighborhood and clambering up trees in Somerville, Mass. "I've seen a lot of kids from back home go down the wrong path, and I would like to start a parkour academy in the Boston area to try to make a difference in their lives," he said. "At its best, it's more than a sport. It's a way of life that teaches you to surmount the obstacles in front of you. While you're strengthening your body to get over physical obstacles, you also gain confidence and mental toughness to deal with life's other challenges as well."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.