Urban Evolution Baltimore parkour gym ‘an adult playground’ of sorts

Urban Evolution Baltimore not your everyday gym; provides unique challenges to its clientele.

When Adam McConnell relates the story about the time he saved his parkour gym, remember the essence of the sport: It is about challenging yourself to find creative solutions for difficult problems.

McConnell's was that he needed $50. Short on his month's rent in early 2014, he went through his truck, looking for spare change, maybe a bill or two, anything he could use to keep Urban Evolution Baltimore open. He thought about driving from the converted industrial building off Eastern Avenue to Easton, where he had a change jar somewhere in his old place. Maybe he'd find salvation in a Coinstar.

Actually, it was a jacket. The day his lease payment was due, he reached into the pocket of the seldom-worn coat, felt a piece of paper and found Ulysses S. Grant, Mr. $50 Bill himself, staring back. He rushed to the bank for the deposit, wrote a check and sent it off.

Another month of business turned into another couple of years, another couple of years meant more customers, and more customers made possible Saturday's event: the "Throwdown at the Playground," what the gym says was the city's first parkour "speed, skill and style" competition, with about 75 competitors from Buffalo, N.Y., to Tennessee expected.

"I'm on much better footing now," McConnell, 35, said, laughing. "I can eat. I'm happy. I don't have a problem feeding myself anymore, so that's good."

McConnell first glimpsed parkour, or freerunning, in the ghettos of a futuristic Paris. In 2006, he was watching a French action film, "District B13," about a good guy caught in a bad place — walled inside a destitute suburb in France's capital, left to fend for himself against drug dealers and gangs. The movie opens with a group of thugs coming to confront the protagonist. His escape is a parkour master class: running on walls, scaling buildings, jumping between rooftops, more flying squirrel than man.

"The chase scene in that movie just made me go, 'Oh, my God, that is the coolest thing I have ever seen,'" McConnell said. His arm shot up and he pointed his finger as if he'd just happened upon Bigfoot.

McConnell researched the movie online. David Belle was the actor playing the protagonist; he was also the protagonist's stunt man. "And this word, parkour, kept coming up over and over," McConnell recalled. "I was like, 'What the hell is parkour?'"

His initiation into the discipline was not uncommon. First, there were the hours spent bingeing parkour videos on YouTube. Then there were the attempts to mimic them. He found a training session at the Silver Spring Metro station. "Brutal," he called it. He went back the next weekend anyway. "I couldn't stand up again."

For the next three years, McConnell spent about 7 1/2 hours each week driving from the Eastern Shore, where he worked as an agricultural consultant, for six hours of workouts at Primal Fitness, a Washington gym specializing in parkour and CrossFit. He became a CrossFit trainer, and in 2011, Salil Maniktahla, who founded Urban Evolution in Alexandria, Va., offered the opportunity to franchise a new gym. McConnell started looking for locations. He found a 15,000-square-foot space past the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus. He poured his life savings — "and then some," he said, "and some borrowed money on top of all that" — into the facility. Opening day was Aug. 17, 2013.

"This gym, the entire idea behind the business model for the gym, is a place where people come to get fit, but they don't come because they get fit," he said. "They come to have fun and end up getting fit in the process."

They come even if they are frightened. After Cassie Hailson, 22, moved to Odenton in June from Massachusetts, she looked for gyms, but not of the conventional free-weights-and-treadmills variety. She found Urban Evolution and took an introductory course in parkour. She'd seen it done on YouTube, too.

That was maybe Hailson's only qualification. She is not, she said, "graceful." Then there's her whole "extreme fear of jumping over things," which would seem to have made her and parkour as ill-fitting a match as a necrophobe and a career in funeral services.

"Every time I walk in that gym," she explained (because, yes, she is still going), "I'm just terrified of everything that I'm about to be asked to do."

She tries the various vaults just the same, nailing most of them. Without any relatives in the area, the gym has become a kind of family place, she said.

And not just for parkour, either. Erin Draper, 26, of Canton heard about Urban Evolution from a friend whose New Year's resolution was to try aerial silks, a kind of midair acrobatics performed while hanging from a fabric. When her friend lost interest, Draper kept going. A fashion designer, she found the space, covered from wall to wall in audacious graffiti, sprawling with obstacles that include a hollowed-out Volvo, reflective of the energy inside.

"I guess it's like an adult playground," she said.

While Saturday's competition featured athletic tests requiring grown-up moves like "cat hangs" and "dynos," McConnell said many of his customers trend younger.

Urban Evolution has become a kind of after-hours daycare for some families, a place where parents can pay for their kids to run up walls and jump off stuff, but safely, under McConnell's instruction.

Some children just need to grasp "what height means," he said, to know why it's not a good idea to leap off a roof. And if they are going to do something crazy, well, they have an understanding guide in McConnell, who knows it's more about how you brace yourself for what comes next.

"When they come here, this is almost like risk assessment," he said. "Fifty percent of this discipline is getting into the air and what you do there. The whole other 50 percent is how you hit the ground on the other side."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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