Owen Lai takes parkour to new heights

Srinidhi Seshadri

Jonathan Ye

A double frontflip, then a backflip, followed by two 360 degree spins and a jump through a narrow crevice. For senior Owen Lai, these stunts are part of his strict, daily training regimen. Lai practices parkour, an acrobatic and athletic discipline that combines martial arts with gymnastics.

As a young child, Lai always wanted to learn how to do flips. In ninth grade, he decided to start parkour, and has continued to pursue the sport throughout high school. When he first started, his main motive was to look cool with flips and tricks. As he became more invested, however, parkour and breakdancing became two of his true passions.

“The motivation is mainly intrinsic,” said Lai. “I think most people start doing parkour or breakdancing to look cool. But I soon actually became passionate about parkour and started doing it for myself. It’s fun, and it gets me up in the morning.”

Lai used to train at a parkour gym called Sessions Academy of Movement. Parkour gyms are filled with obstacles such as bars for gymnastics, airbags for safe landings and trampolines for flipping. His training schedule usually varies, but he trains at least once a week in order to consistently improve.

“I go to an open gym on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m.,” said Lai. “There are airbags, walls, mats and spring floors, and I can train wherever I want.”

In parkour, most of the moves appear dangerous and intimidating. That is why the open gym sessions are especially useful to Lai.

“To be able to progress to a move to muscle memory, I first have to learn those moves in the gym,” said Lai. “I can progress to tricks on concrete and the outside that are seemingly dangerous and risky, but I have to take those progressions on mats first. After developing the muscle memory, I can do those parkour moves anytime and anywhere.”

Unlike other athletic disciplines and sports, parkour and breakdancing don’t require any special equipment.

“Parkour is a natural way of human movement,” said Lai. “A lot of it is your body and your mind, and a lot of it is psychological.”

Lai believes if one can do parkour or breakdancing, one can do anything athletic in any situation or circumstance, as these disciplines are very versatile and can be used with walls, obstacles, the ground or just one’s body.

In the end of August 2016, Lai broke his tibia after an unfortunate landing during a backflip from a raised obstacle at open gym. Lai was immediately hospitalized and had to miss school for a few months to recover from his injury. Three days after his first semester of junior year, Lai broke his jaw from a mistimed frontflip on a slanted concrete wall. The accident was filmed, and Lai was again hospitalized.

“For my broken tibia, I needed a lot more rehabilitation because it was my leg,” said Lai. “I don’t need my face for flips, so I could continue doing them. For my tibia, I needed surgery, screws and a plate, but after four months, I could start doing flips again. I was a bit traumatized from the move that broke my tibia, so I couldn’t do it for a while, but I was fortunately able to mentally recover from it.”

Although Lai suffered two devastating injuries, he continues to pursue his disciplines, because he has a genuine passion for parkour. What Lai especially enjoys about the sport is landing moves he never thought he could do. In eighth grade, Lai’s biggest dream tricks were the backflip, frontflip and aerial; these moves, however, are now merely fundamentals he works off of.

“Seeing myself improve so much has really boosted my self-confidence,” said Lai. “It helps me see that my goals are never as big as I plan them out in my mind. Just because something seems so daunting and scary, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I’ve seen that happen with every trick that I never thought I would do, but ended up doing. It’s very fulfilling.”

Parkour is not the only unique discipline Lai specializes in. Lai also practices breakdancing, an athletic style of street dance. Lai is a member of Lynbrook’s B-boy team, and he borrows many of the techniques he learns from parkour into his breakdancing routines, such as backflips, frontflips and martial arts kicks.

“Owen’s a really energetic person and it’s amazing to see what he can do,”  said senior and former breakdancer Isaac Hou. “My most memorable moment with him is dancing, but also how he supported me even after I quit breakdancing and chose to pursue choreographing.”

For Lai, parkour and breakdancing are not merely physical training disciplines; they are a lifestyle. Through parkour, Lai has greatly developed his self-confidence and physical prowess. He has learned that he can accomplish more than he could ever imagine, as long as he put his heart into it. Although his discipline is extremely dangerous, Lai will continue to run, jump, flip and kick.