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Steel City Parkour owner turns hobby into career

By Edward Trizzino & Michael Richter, Point Park News Service:

Christian Winchell, 24, describes parkour as “interacting with the environment with your body.” As a coach at Steel City Parkour in Export, Pa., he practices this almost every day to maximize his potential in this sport. Steel City Parkour, which opened in November 2014, is a gym that was created to teach the activity of free running, also known as parkour.

Parkour participant completes a pass at the Beast Coast '16 event. Photo credited: Steel City Parkour Facebook page
Parkour participant completes a pass at the Beast Coast ’16 event. Photo credit: Steel City Parkour Facebook page

Steve DiGirolamo, 25, is the owner and head coach of the gym. He said there are members that are as young as five and as old as mid-fifties honing their parkour skills.

Parkour is a type of physical mobility where the individual finds unique ways to get around an environment. DiGirolamo said the sport was popularized in the early 2000s, and it has since been portrayed in media such as action movies, online videos and reality TV including programs like “American Ninja Warrior.”

“A lot of people come in for Ninja Warrior, and they try it and it’s really disappointing for them because they can’t do any of the obstacles,” DiGirolamo said explaining how real parkour differs from entertainment.

The Steel City Parkour Gym teaches classes in parkour, where students of all ages can also participate in open gym. They can practice techniques and tricks freely for use in a real-world environment, which is the ultimate goal of learning the moves.

What would eventually become his career and lifestyle started out simply as a childhood distraction for DiGirolamo, who discovered parkour in high school after he had already been doing stunts on a trampoline as a kid. It was only after he had already been learning tricks that a friend showed him videos of parkour stunts.

After high school, he began a parkour club at one of Penn State University’s branch campuses, where he majored in business. That is also around the time he first became a parkour instructor at a gymnastics gym, and he had only been doing parkour for about a year.

DiGirolamo decided he wanted to own his own parkour gym after he noticed there were not many spaces where people could learn parkour in Western Pennsylvania. He realized he could turn it into a profitable business after visiting other parkour gyms – Tempest Freerunning Academy in Southern California and Apex Movement in Colorado.

“There’s tons of gyms popping up [around the nation],” DiGirolamo said. “There’s tons of gyms in California. I was like, ‘There is a market for this, and it’s not happening on the East Coast.’”

With four years of parkour teaching under his belt by 2014, DiGirolamo bought a former gymnastics gym on Borland Farm Road and turned it into his own parkour gym. When Steel City Parkour opened, it was the only true parkour gym on the eastern side of the United States, DiGirolamo said. Even now, the nearest parkour gym to Pittsburgh is in Baltimore.

“I had to get in on it right away,” DiGirolamo said about joining the parkour gym revolution.

In the Elements 

On a Sunday afternoon in October, DiGirolamo and Winchell drove to Mount Lebanon Park, so they could perform parkour maneuvers on the suburban area’s structures.

Along with teaching and doing parkour in their own gym, they like to take their talents to the streets. Weather permitting, DiGirolamo and other people he trains with try to practice their parkour skills in an outside environment as much as possible. They go to areas in Downtown Pittsburgh, local parks and also the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.

As Winchell prepared for a jump, he cleared pebbles off a stone wall with his hands to ensure he does not slip when he lands on it.

“If I hit those rocks, it’s going to be like sliding on a banana peel,” Winchell said.

Being cautious and aware of your landing spots is key while doing parkour outside, DiGirolamo said. In the following video, DiGirolamo describes why they go to Mount Lebanon Park and why understanding your environment is important in parkour:

Appropriate footwear is also important when doing parkour outside. DiGirolamo and Winchell discuss in the clip below what shoes they prefer to wear while doing parkour:

DiGirolamo said he rarely gets nervous about performing a maneuver. He also said he has gotten hurt more times in the gym than outside.

“Pads give you a false sense of safety,” DiGirolamo said.

The most serious injury any of his students have suffered is a sprained ankle, DiGirolamo said. And usually they do not injure themselves while performing a trick.

“They’ll do a trick, then they’re walking and they’re not paying attention, so they’ll step funny on their ankle,” DiGirolamo said. “That’s pretty much the primary injury you see in parkour.”

DiGirolamo emphasizes to his students that it is imperative to know their limits.

“Know what you do,” DiGirolamo says to his students.

Some kids will come to the gym upon a friend’s recommendation. Once they see what their experienced friends can do, they will try to do emulate them.

“‘Just because your friend can do it, doesn’t mean you can do it,’” DiGirolamo says to kids.

In the Gym

Steel City Parkour offers beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. These are structured classes in which the instructors have control.

Once a student has performed well in class, DiGirolamo suggests they attend open gym. That is a time period where students can practice moves at their own will, while the instructors observe and give them tips for improvement.

“They can do anything in here that they want,” DiGirolamo said.

DiGirolamo views parkour as an art form, not a sport – which is what he tells his students.

“Most famous artists didn’t do their best work in an art school,’” DiGirolamo says to his students when stressing the importance of open gym. “Most artists didn’t go to school; they just did it on their own.’”

DiGirolamo said most of his students perform best at open gym, where they have creative freedom, which he believes is important.

Gymnastics vs. Parkour

He said that is where parkour training differs from gymnastics. Gymnasts come to Steel City Parkour and they are in awe of the possibilities for tricks, although, DiGirolamo said that he will usually see the gymnasts just standing around awaiting instruction.

DiGirolamo said he will ask students why they aren’t doing anything.

“‘Well, nobody told me what to do; I don’t know what to do,’” DiGirolamo says that is how they usually respond.

Once DiGirolamo proposes a move for them to perform, they will continuously practice it until they receive further guidance from him.

DiGirolamo said gymnastics coaches tell kids what do at all times, depriving them of any input or control. It is important to him that his students express themselves and have independent thoughts.

“They shouldn’t just rely on us,” DiGirolamo said.

Charity McBride’s son Elijah was growing tired of the stress from doing gymnastics, so he wanted to come to Steel City Parkour.

“Here, he gets all the great benefit of gymnastics, but he doesn’t have the stress,” McBride said. “It’s a very low-stress environment for him, so he’s really, really happy here.”

Abigail Beam, 12, has been going to Steel City Parkour since April. She is also a gymnast but says parkour is “a little more advanced” than gymnastics.

“It’s really fun,” Beam said.

Additionally, DiGirolamo said that many kids who attend their classes and open gym don’t enjoy team sports.

“They’re not depending on a team; they can do what they want [at Steel City Parkour],” DiGirolamo said. “There’s no pressure, because here, we’re coaching them for fun. They’re not in a competition.”

YouTube and Instagram have contributed to parkour’s popularity, and DiGirolamo said that helps attract kids to his gym.

“Kids will see [parkour videos] on YouTube or Instagram, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I want to do this,’” DiGirolamo said.

Coaches at the gym also post videos of their own stunts on Instagram and YouTube, adding to the growing number of parkour videos currently on the Internet.

DiGirolamo said that learning parkour has made some of his students more confident in themselves.

“I get kids who come in here who are afraid to talk to people; they’re afraid to do anything,” DiGirolamo said.

But once they learn how to do a few tricks, it makes them feel better about themselves, which crosses over to other aspects of their lives.

Some parents have told DiGirolamo that their children have improved their grades and that they have become more social since joining his gym.

“It’s one thing to go from the weird shy kid at school to the kid that can run up a wall and do a flip,” DiGirolamo said. “[Parkour] definitely helps them out a lot.”

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