In 2005, I was 14 years-old, and I was probably the most unlikely person to become a world-renowned freerunning athlete, sponsored by brands like RedBull and GoPro.
This was partly because freerunning wasn’t even a thing yet. But mostly it was because my biggest athletic achievement to date was lifting my custom-built tower of a computer and the big square monitor onto a hand-pulled wagon, which I would pull across the village to my friend David’s house.
Sometimes David’s mum wasn’t in town, so we’d spent the whole weekend inventing culinary wonders such as the “chicken-wing pizza” and “Nutellami,” the bastard child of Nutella and Salami, while screen-recording ourselves doing stunts in GTA and double-headshots in Counter-Strike.
One day, with the TV running in the background, we happened to stumble across a two-minute piece on some French guys leaping in between rooftops, and came to the obvious conclusion: ‘We are going to learn how to do parkour!’
Starting out we had no gym, no trainer, no online tutorials, and absolutely no clue of what we were doing. Guided by a few clips we found in online forums, we took it to the street to imitate what we had seen and, for the first week I only jumped over things without using my hands.
Then David said, ‘Man, you know they use their hands in the videos, right?’ ‘No way man,’ I said, ‘it’s all about jumping over stuff without your hands!’ We got in such an argument that we walked the 15 minutes home immediately to check the french videos online, and I couldn’t believe using your hands was allowed.
It was my first major breakthrough in freerunning.
A handful of people joined us, all just as excited and clueless as we were. Together we spent the next year in our little bubble and we idolized the French parkour masters as superheroes with Dragonball-like skills. In our minds they could scramble up a lamppost in under a second and leap across a whole highway.
While the French were (and still are) outstanding Masters of Movement, we definitely overestimated them, and that was awesome, because we trained every day to be just as good as they were.
After two years of life in the bubble, it burst when we visited a community Jam in Cologne. The Cologne freerunners had been training at least three as long as us, and we couldn’t wait to be blown away by their jumps and benefit from their experience.
Scrambling together all our money, we got the cheapest ticket to Cologne, which meant we had to spend 12 hours on trains to get a total of 6 hours at the jam. We'd go back home the same day, that way we could use the same ticket and save money.
Many of the Cologne crew were more grown-up, smart and articulate than us. They knew a lot about the history of parkour, all it’s philosophical values, and they loved talking about it.
As we got to the spots, they slowly started moving and warming up. Excited, we joined in, but got confused when their warmup lasted for hours, and involved lots of just talking and hanging around.
Turns out, this was it, this was their training. They weren’t as good as we imagined at all. After two years on our own we had surpassed their five years of training, breaking jumps at their home-spots they had never done or even thought of before.
I'm convinced that by being out of touch with the rest of the world and with reality we learned much quicker.
I learned that I didn’t need to know everything to be successful.
Many people focus too much on the theory of a craft, and never make the leap to live it. With the right energy and passion, I might make lots of mistakes, but I’ll learn everything I need on the way.
Going out, taking the first step and giving it your all—even if your not sure you’re doing it right—is the key.
Repetition is Important
Shortly after Cologne, my freerunning partner David achieved something we had only dreamed of, and as video-game-nerds never thought possible: David found a girl who was willing to be his girlfriend.
To his excitement, this involved her touching his penis—a lot—and even sex. Incredible! It would take me another year before I would even kiss a girl—she was from Kazakstan with a really nice butt—but she didn’t want to repeat the act (granted, my first kiss must’ve felt like a Great Dane licking ice-cream off of your face).
As David’s sex career kicked off, his freerunning career came to an end, which devastated me at the time. But it turns out this was the best thing that could’ve happened to my training.
Only seeing other freerunners on weekends, I spent the remaining five days of the week training myself, and I built the most efficient German training regime ever.
While others adorned their bedroom walls with posters of the G-Unit and bikini babes, I glued images of David Belle, Stephane Vigroux and Daniel Ilabaca to the ceiling above my bed, and even masturbated to their airforms.
Okay, maybe I didn’t masturbate to them, but I was definitely obsessed.
With my heroes as motivation, I would make a to do-list of moves every night, and alongside those I would add a number of how often I wanted to land them clean. Whatever I wrote down had to be done the next day, no matter how I felt or if rain was pouring down.
One day I woke up to just one thing on my list: “Stick 1000 rail precisions.” Fuck! What was I thinking when I wrote it down the night before? Oh well, now I have to do it.
After six hours of doing the same precision-jump over and over again, I looked at my hands and was surprised. ‘Why are my hands huge!?’ I already have big hands, but they were twice as big as usual!
I realized that because I was throwing my hands upwards as part of the jump for the past few hours, they were filled with blood and throbbing. ‘Well, only two hundred more jumps to go and I can go home.’
The next few days I was as sore as I ever was in my life and probably ever will be. I decided to never do this again, but it was good to know that I was capable of pushing myself to do it.
Looking back I wonder how my 16 year-old self had so much self-discipline. Then I remember that it never felt like work, or something I didn’t want to do. In a very masochistic way this was really fun—meditative—and I progressed like crazy.
The truth is, the basics are gold, and perfecting them is a huge part of success. Having all my fundamentals as second-nature saved my life many times, when I slipped on a jump or lost myself in a trick.
Even today my most productive and creative freerunning sessions happen when I go out by myself. Jumping around and exploring the city with your friends is lots of fun, and seeing them move can be inspiring, but the real work happens when nobody is watching.
Also, to do-lists are the most basic, but powerful tool! I use them to this day, every day!
Play to Your Strengths
Turning 18, I found myself high up on a stage in the center of London. Below me, Trafalgar Square filled with 8,000 people, and I could feel every single one of their eyes looking at me (plus BBC’s live cameras). I had made it to the finals of the 2009 Barclaycard World Freerunning Championships, which is the worst spot ever to get shaky legs, but I couldn’t help myself. This was the first time I’ve ever been on a stage in all my life.
I wasn’t invited for my skill, style or expertise. The reason I even got to the contest was simply because they needed a representative from Germany—and I wasn’t even their first choice. Their first choice declined, so they settled for me.
Understandably I felt very intimidated and out of place. Everybody at the event had more experience, had way better tricks than me, was pretty much my hero and most definitely glued to the ceiling above my bed. Looking at Marcus Gustafsson practicing 360 front flips across roof gaps and Gabe Nunez prepping Cast-Away precisions in rehearsals, I had to admit to myself, ‘I can’t beat any of these guys’ tricks.’
I would love to tell you how I was motivated to win against all odds, that I believed in myself and was determined to win, but exactly the opposite was the case. I thought, ‘Well, you won’t win, but you are already lucky to be here so just do your best and do a good run.” I was sure I wouldn’t stand a chance, so I didn’t even plan a second run for finals.
Despite the shaky legs, I got into my run, and neglecting difficult tricks I focused on my strengths: flowing through the course, connecting movements and finding creative lines. To everybody’s surprise, I ended up on the podium. Third place for “Just rolling around the course!” is how Marcus described it. Now a good friend, he told me he was upset about it back then.
It turned out that everybody was so focused on doing the most difficult and impressive tricks that they forgot about two whole judging criteria: “Flow” and “Creativity.” By not even trying to play their game of hard tricks, I accidentally struck pay dirt, and doing what nobody else thought of made me stand out and win a trophy.
This one win got me the attention and invitations to all the future events I needed to jumpstart my career as a freerunner. This win also earned me a core belief: often the best way to win a game is by not playing it, but inventing your own game instead and skewing the rules towards your strengths.
Today I’m living my dream. Freerunning has became my job. In today’s freerunning world, this also involves lots of e-mails, hours in front of the screen editing videos or writing down concepts, designing clothing, visiting our factory or meetings with big companies. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all of these a lot and they excite me. But sometimes I can get lost in all those things and have to bring my mind back to why I'm even sitting here in this meeting, so I can make Freerunning my life.
Whenever it goes over my head, I just go out and freerun.
Being out and jumping between walls reminds me that not knowing everything is okay. If I don’t know the rules of business and how to behave in meetings or write the perfect e-mail, it’s easier for me to break them and do the impossible. Nobody ever told us you need to go to fashion school and do an internship before designing your own clothing line, and that’s why were able to build our own brand, Farang Clothing, which is now releasing its fifth line.
When everything snowballs and there are a hundred of things to do, I can break it down like a freerunning trick, make a to do-list and get at it. I focus on the fundamentals of what I do, and remind myself of how good things need practice and patience.
At moments when I sway, and everybody seems to know more or have more experience, I remember my first contest, and remind myself to play to my strengths and usually it works out.
Now that freerunning has taught me so much, I feel ready to take on the world.