A grown man swings on an oversize jungle gym while another jumps head first off a building and tumbles onto a crash pad. In the background, the less experienced practice jumping over foam blocks and flipping into the air with the help of Olympic trampolines.
It's just another typical evening at Tempest Freerunning Academy, an indoor gym with locations in Hawthorne and Chatsworth that allows teens and very fit adults to run, jump and flip across a diverse urban landscape designed by the same people who build BMX ramps for the X-Games.
Freerunning is a growing international sport in which people express themselves by interacting with their environment in unique ways.
“It's movement with a sense of self-expression that makes creative use of the environment,” said Tempest co-founder Paul Darnell, 32.
Tempest offers classes for children who want to learn how to scale walls and flip around like Spider-Man. It also offers more fitness-based classes for adults who want to build core strength.
Darnell and many of the Tempest instructors and sponsored athletes have day jobs as Hollywood stuntmen, where their abilities to scale walls and leap from rooftop to rooftop is in high demand.
“It's taken the film industry by storm,” said Tempest co-founder Gabe Nunez, 31. “A car chase scene gets boring. (Freerunning) just adds a lot more drama. What would you do when running for your life?”
Freerunning and a similar sport called parkour — a precursor to freerunning that is less about self-expression and more about getting from A to B in the fastest, most efficient way possible — burst into the public consciousness when one of the sport's founding fathers, Frenchman Sebastien Foucan, was featured in an eight-minute chase scene at the beginning of the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale.”
“It's more relatable than a lot of other sports,” said David Thompson, who started the World Freerunning Parkour Federation after developing an MTV television special about the sport in 2009. “Unless you skate, you can't always relate to skateboarding. But we all have two feet and have done parkour on some level. We've all jumped from rock to rock across a stream.”
The World Freerunning Parkour Federation helps gyms certify teachers and acquire the necessary insurance to give classes. Thompson, who lives in Hollywood and comes from a background working with at-risk youth, said the sport offers kids a way to express themselves that is also hip.
“It gives them an excuse to have a positive mindset and do something badass,” Thompson said.
Parkour's growth is hard to quantify, but Thompson said there are more Google searches of it these days than skateboarding and BMX combined. The federation also gets calls every week from people interested in becoming parkour athletes or starting their own gyms.
Red Bull now holds an annual freerunning championship called the Art of Motion, in which Tempest freerunners Cory DeMeyer and Jesse La Flair took first and third place, respectively, in 2013. DeMeyer and La Flair plan to return to Santorini, Greece, for the 2014 competition in October. Afterwards, they'll begin a monthslong world tour to promote freerunning and their new documentary about the sport.
Providing a space where children can learn and practice freerunning is part of the Tempest crew's efforts to boost the profile of a sport still in its infancy. The first Tempest academy, a 7,200-square-foot facility in Chatsworth, opened in 2011. The Hawthorne location, which opened in February near the municipal airport, is nearly twice the size. The two gyms have a combined membership of about 200.
Every year the team hosts the Tempest Pro Takeover, when 30 to 40 of the best freerunners from around the world come to Southern California to train and interact with fans for a week.
“We're trying to be professional athletes in a sport that's not a professional sport,” said La Flair, who now does freerunning full time. The 29-year-old makes money from ads that run on his YouTube channel, which has more than 200,000 followers. He also is sponsored by a German company that makes parkour sport bags.
To be a professional freerunner requires a lot of hustle, La Flair said, like drumming up corporate sponsors and securing promotional gigs from companies such as Ubisoft. The video game developer paid Tempest to come to Comic-Con this summer to put on a freerunning event to promote the game Assassin's Creed, whose avatars use freerunning and parkour moves to sneak around.
Social media is another key ingredient to getting the word out. The Tempest crew attributes the international growth of the sport to YouTube, which is awash in parkour and freerunning videos.
Filmmaking is so common with parkour and freerunning that it has started to influence the actual sport. When people know they're being photographed, they will do certain things in the air to add style, Darnell said after demonstrating a flurry of flips on the trampoline.
“We see in pictures,” La Flair said. “We're very visual people who grew up in a visual medium.”
As working stunt actors in Hollywood, the Tempest team has access to professional camera equipment and know-how that they say is necessary to stand out.
When the team released a promotional video to celebrate the opening of its first location, on Nordoff Place in Chatsworth in 2011, the video went viral, in part because it is so well choreographed and shot that it feels like a big-budget commercial.
“We strive for quality not only in the movement, but in our videos,” said Nunez, who is a stuntman. “It's almost a requirement now if you want a video that's going to get attention from the community.”