In conversation with...Parkour Athlete Glenn McMahon
Can you tell us a little about Parkour/Freerunning? Is it an official sport in Ireland and the UK? What's the philosophy of the sport?
I’m Glenn McMahon, I’m from Dublin, and I do Parkour, which is jumping, climbing, and acrobatics, a mixture of movements that you adapt to different environments, like streets or trees, anywhere where it looks fun to do it. In Ireland, it isn’t an official sport, but it is in the North of Ireland and the UK. The Republic is only starting to create spaces for Parkour, and the situation for Parkour could be better.
Tell us about your journey. How long have you been doing Parkour/Freerunning? Why did you start? What do you call what you do? What keeps you going?
I was about 12 years old, we all were into skateboarding and jackass and would mess about on railings. One of my friends looked up some rail jumping tutorials, and we found Parkour when we were young. All my friends eventually stopped, and I eventually found a community. When I found the community with people training in Parkour. People older than me were able to teach me things, so I learned a lot from meeting the community. Then I started travelling and branching out and just couldn’t stop training, it’s just so fun.
There was just no one there to teach you in the very beginning, when we met people that could teach you, they were only just learning themselves too. There were no teachers as such, everyone just taught each other.
How important is a community in the sport?
The community is the best thing about Parkour. You can go to any country, and just meet up with people, there is a good chance you get hosted, and you then bring them to your city and show them everywhere where you train. It’s a nice way to travel, you get to meet so many people that are similar to you, and get to see the world a bit easier - I don’t think you can find hosting as easy in football.
It’s a young community and has already changed so much over the last 10 years, we won’t be able to call the moves of the future… it’s gonna be crazy and blow up with people getting better and better. In countries like Denmark and America facilities for Parkour are amazing, a kid that starts today can go to a gym and get brought up to speed on someone’s life work in a couple of years with proper teachers. With all the people from all the different countries and the access to travel, you can get so much different knowledge of people.
Parkour seems like a very accessible sport, you don't need much more than an eye for the opportunity to move. What do you see when you walk through a city?
Parkour is free to do, you don’t have to pay money to learn how to jump over a railing ten different ways. Some sports aren’t accessibly seasonally - you can do Parkour all year round. It is a lot more fun when it’s not raining (living in Ireland, that’s not always easy).
When I walk around, I see opportunities for ways to have fun, if I see a new piece of architecture that is exciting and has some opportunities… I’m away with fairies a bit, looking around, constantly looking for walls and rails and ways of doing combinations.
You like watches and wear the Atlantic by Rotate North, why this one?
I wear the Atlantic because it just blends in with the sport - it’s comfortable to wear and doesn’t affect my movements in any way. The other cool thing is it suits the occasion, if it gets battered a bit when you fall off stuff, it’s not gonna affect the watch as it's designed to be durable.
I also like that it is a military tool watch. Parkour originated from the French Military, which is a nice shared history. In the late 80s, a man called Raymond Belle brought military obstacle running into the urban environment. He practised quite a few different disciplines, like gymnastics and martial arts, his son David grew up watching all of this on the outskirts of Paris in an area called Lisses, Evry. David and his friends started playing around the architecture around this area, and when you’ve been there, you will see, why Parkour is happening there, there is just so much to climb and jump on. That’s how it developed first as a martial art or a discipline, and over time the techniques evolved and more gymnastics and tricking merged into it and developed it. Now it has evolved so much, there are so many different subgenres in Parkour, from the original military-style going over obstacles just getting over things linear and efficiently to everything in between, to people who are ultimately doing gymnastics outside, doing crazy flips of bars with the aim to land perfectly.
Different people have different backgrounds that flavour the style they have. If you are a rock climber, skateboarder, or ballet dancer, it’s all gonna shape how you move.
The Atlantic is a mechanical watch powered by my wrist movements, I like the idea of my movements and sport driving the watch.
Would you say you are an adventure and thrill seeker?
You don’t necessarily need much athleticism to enjoy Parkour, you can just go and play with your environment regardless of how strong or crazy you are, anyone can do it. But to get better at the sporting element, being physical helps a lot, the more effort you put in, the better you perform.
Do you train in the gym in addition to parkour?
In the last 6 months, I’ve got a personal trainer to work out additionally to keep me on track, and it has been so beneficial for my training. I got a lot better from conditioning. If you want to get good at Parkour, take up some conditioning, it will help you to get better but also preserve your body.
And do you get injured a lot?
Accidents happen, and most injuries come from if you're going for something that you are not ready for. Or if your body fatigues or your brain says yes and your body says no, or the other way around. Problems happen from when you go for something and pull out halfway through when you don’t fully commit to what you are doing. A lot of people get insured when they are showing off.
When we followed you around the city, it became very apparent how restricted our public and open spaces are when it comes to physical activity - you were told to leave multiple times. How do you feel about that, and what is your opinion on creating dedicated locations for Parkour?
Security can be an issue, some security guards can be respectful, and there is potential to form relationships with them if you are respectful. If you aren’t, you can taint the spot for yourself and others. It is annoying that on some days you're ok to practice and another day you're dealing with a different guard and aren’t allowed anymore.
A lot of people project their fears on you, one day a friend got shouted at, ‘get down there, or you break your neck,’ even though he was perfectly capable of standing on that wall.
There are laws around urban exploration in the UK, and more and more people practice that. So the law is now that once you’re asked to leave, and you continue to stay, it becomes trespassing. Laws are different on private property, and apparently, some areas in the city are private… which you only find out when you're jumping off a bench there.
Sometimes it can be vandalism due to a popular spot where the wall has become loose as it's a popular spot to jump off. I’ve been to parts of Spain where all the rails were loose from guys jumping over it for 10 years.
I had to deal with very aggressive security guards as well as police before, but at the same time, we had police that weren’t sure why they had been told to move us on, coming over saying, “I don’t know why I am meant to move you on, you are just exercising”.
Nobody seems to know the official rules, it’s just a lot of paperwork for those people.
Your movements are very artistic and fluid, can you tell us about the process of creating your flows?
Movement is often compared to things like music or painting, or learning a language. If you learn to play the guitar, you first learn the individual noises, which compare to the individual jumps in Parkour, you collect those notes, and then you put them together in different orders. Once you understand that, you can start improvising with your movements, like making music, painting, or having a conversation.
Where does your style originate?
I did a bit of dance, speech and drama when I was young, but I was also a competitive swimmer. Swimming is sort of the same as Parkour your connect lots of movements over and over again.
Life experiences can also shape your style, but it can be little things like having no homework in school, which could mean you have more time for training and your creative outlet. Even a good holiday and having a good time can change how you move and train. Another factor that shapes your style is the places where you train. Sometimes you have to get creative with very little, which affects style and approach.
Creating spaces for people to move, like adult playgrounds, would be a good start. I am no fan of public exercise machines, it’s hard to get creative with them. A simple pull-up bar could be so much more fun.
Every city has skateparks which makes it easy for the community to meet. Why wouldn’t that be the case for Parkour? Giving it a space means creating a gateway for people to get into the sport. The problem is that most parkour parks aren’t very well designed. There are five new parks put up around Dublin, and the layout and distances of jumps are odd. It seems like nobody spoke to Parkour artists when designing the park. You can be creative with anything, but it does seem like a waste of money.
Indoor spaces are really important in countries with harsh winters, too, there is only one indoor space in the whole of Ireland, which is in Dunmurry in NI, called the PLAYGROUND, my friend runs it. It’s a small place, but it’s a start, there is everything to get people started.
What's the future of Parkour?
Parkour could develop in a couple of directions, Gymnastics is currently taking over Parkour, creating their own competition system run by the gymnasts. Parkour could end up being gymnastics on concrete with ridiculous scoring systems and banned tricks. It’s gonna end up as boring as gymnastics has become because they ban tricks and ban any creativity within the sport. It’s amazing to look at, but it's a robotic movement with zero soul, passion or creativity. Fewer and fewer people pursue gymnastics because of the coaching methods and the elitism. It doesn’t have a great record.
On the other side, I see it redefining itself with street competitions like in the Netherlands and the UK. They have street competitions, style, speed and skill competitions. They are true to Parkour and being judged by Parkour Artists themselves, people who understand it and are not designed for spectators who don’t participate in the sport.