Where most of his classmates see an ordinary brick wall, 19-year-old Sam Slater sees an opportunity.
The McDaniel College junior is hooked on a little-known sport called parkour, which marries improvisational dance with gymnastics in an outdoor, urban setting. Parkour has been likened to skateboarding without the board.
On a recent fall afternoon near McDaniel's Hoover Library, Slater eyes a waist-high wall. He knows that on the opposite side there's a 7-foot drop to a grassy slope.
He steps back, then jaunts forward and uses both hands to spring over the wall. For a split second, he hangs in the air before hitting the ground, planting his feet and rolling forward into a somersault to cushion the impact.
Then he jogs back up the hill to join his three friends - all students at the Westminster campus and parkour enthusiasts.
Loosely translated, parkour is French for obstacle course. The sport was created in the late 1980s by two young Frenchmen and has been slowly spreading to the United States and elsewhere, thanks to the Internet, a Discovery Channel film and several Nike TV commercials.
Frenchmen Sebastien Foucan and David Belle invented parkour using gymnastic and martial arts techniques. By the late 1990s, the duo had a collection of moves they practiced in urban areas near Paris, and they began to attract a following.
Parkour's young participants - called traceurs - use walls, benches, stairwells and fire escapes for leaps and vaults, which they call freerunning. They like to think of parkour as an art form and talk about getting into the "flow." They pride themselves on smooth, fluid movements.
Slater enjoys the feeling of being suspended in the air during jumps. "It's not until you hit the ground when you snap back into it," he says.
His friend Brian Belida, also a junior, loves the rush that comes with landing a big jump. Recalling a recent vault over a stairwell, Belida says, "my adrenaline was pumping. I was psyched."
The McDaniel group, which calls itself the Windtraceurs, is about a half-dozen strong. Its motto is, "No obstacles, only opportunities."
Self-expression is key
Some parkour enthusiasts say there are rules to the sport, but the Windtraceurs say there are no rules. One thing that everyone in the parkour community seems to agree on is, "don't hurt yourself" - which isn't always easy.
Slater and Belida have scrapes and scars from runs gone wrong, but so far, no broken bones. The minor injuries have encouraged them to hone their physical and mental agility, they say.
"I'm in the best physical shape I've ever been in," notes Windtraceur John Ruiz.
The emphasis in parkour is on self-expression rather than competition, and each traceur has a different style, depending on his background. Slater practiced martial arts for 12 years, which influences his movements.
There aren't many parkour enthusiasts in the United States, but the ranks seem to be growing. Internet sites such as www.urbanfreeflow.com and last year's documentary Jump London are helping to fuel the movement.
"We all view the U.S. as a sleeping giant right now, as it's still very much in its infancy there regarding exposure," Paul Corkery writes in an e-mail of the parkour movement. Corkery is the founder of London-based Urban Freeflow, one of parkour's main online sites.
"With some more attention and maybe some help from a sponsor," Corkery adds, "the art would be kick-started in terms of making people aware."
Spreading the word
Several months ago, the McDaniel group wrote a letter explaining parkour to the college's department of campus safety. Joyce Muller, associate vice president of communications, said the administration was pleased that the Windtraceurs informed them.
"I would just say it's a trendy recreational sport. Students here have embraced it, so the college supports it," Muller said. "Safety is always our first concern, but students are students, and we will be here to help them if they need our help."
Belida and Slater started practicing basic parkour moves six months ago with no knowledge of the movement. Then Slater saw a Discovery Channel film on parkour and realized what they were doing was part of a fledgling international sport.
Through the Urban Freeflow Web site, Slater eventually found other freerunners from College Park and Virginia.
The Windtraceurs practice weekly, spending about 15 minutes stretching and doing warm-up vaults over 2-foot walls. Then they get more ambitious, scaling and kicking off walls, jumping over hand-rails and vaulting over larger drops.
Because of parkour's physical demands, Slater and his friends Belida, Ruiz and Ben Miller know that 20 years from now they won't be able to keep landing the same jumps and scaling the same walls. But Slater is content to keep running as long as possible.
"I think more about now," he says. "I don't like to dwell on it in the future. I know I'm going to do it until I can't."
How they do it