WOODWARD - Watching a trio of teens from Britain acrobatically leap around the skateboard park at Woodward Camp, it's hard to fathom that they may represent the future of competitive sports.
On the other hand, who would have thought 20 years ago that cable network ESPN would be able to turn skateboarding and snowboarding into an Olympic-level franchise known as the X-Games? That thought in mind, there's no reason to doubt that any one of these young men could be the next Tony Hawk - albeit with nothing but air under their feet.
The three were in Central Pennsylvania this summer, touring the United States to promote their sport - actually, two sports: Freerunning and Parkour and not interchangeable regardless of similarities. Their tour included a September appearance on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," and will culminate later this month when MTV airs "Ultimate Parkour Challenge" Oct. 22 at 11 p.m.
It's appropriate that one of the first stops for the three on their U.S. tour was Woodward, a longtime gymnastics training center that expanded over time to include several of the so-called extreme sports.
And it was an interesting contrast to see the practitioners of Parkour doing many of the same things top skateboarders can do, but with nothing more than air under their feet.
Interestingly, it was another documentary, "Jump Britain," that fostered an interest in one of the athletes on this tour.
"I jumped around the place anyway," said 18-year-old Pip "Pip Trix" Anderson, who grew up in Taunton, a small city in England's Somerset region (southwest). "I was just trying to jump over benches, challenging people to see how far they could jump and what you could jump. It turned into some kind of discipline, something I could focus on."
Ben "Jenx" Jenkin also began about the time that 2005 program aired. A native of the Manchester region who is making his first trip across the ocean, Jenkin said it started as an effort to best his friends before he began to focus on the skill of Parkour.
"I just saw a couple friends in the park, and they were just backflipping off stuff," he said. "When I started off doing it, I thought it was about who could flip off the highest thing. But then I realized it was about positive fun and training your body and your mind."
That's one of the differences between the European and American practitioners of Freerunning and Parkour - in the U.S., it's not a sport without being a competition.
"For me it's just a way of life - it's who I am. I don't like how it's being turned into a competitive thing," Anderson said. "When we're training, we're always trying to beat ourselves. We're not trying to beat our friends.
"It seems selfish because there's no team aspect in Parkour, it's for yourself."
Amir Ouazzani, a Philadelphian who came to Woodward at the same time as the Brits, represents the other side of that argument. Ouazzani, 18, started out with a friend who is on a competitive team; his brother, also among the Woodward guests, also competes today.
"Skateboarding's in the X Games, and it's actually very competitive. I want to see it like skateboarding," he explains. "I want competition - how else are you supposed to bring out the best in somebody? If there's nothing to compete against, how are you going to bring yourself up to that level?
"That's where really you bring out your true self."
"It was never competitive for me - it still isn't," said Phil Doyle, the youngest of the traveling contingent at 17. "I think the best way is just to show what we do. I'd rather not talk about it and describe stuff, just practice."
Doyle, who hails from Cambridge, famous for its universities, picked up Parkour during a vacation in France, where he saw someone else doing it.
"I was, like, 'Wow, that's amazing.' And then me and my friends went up and started talking to him," Doyle explained. "Luckily there were people doing it in Cambridge. I contacted them and started training."
Jenkin, who comes the closest to middle ground on the question of competition, insists he does it for fun and that it's really about reaching your own limits.
"It's kind of like a competition, but it's not in a competitive setting," he said. "It's not like one person against the other, to see if you can beat them. It's not about who has the best tricks and stuff."
"You can have team training. But overall, it's your walk by yourself," Anderson added. "Personally, I want to be able to live comfortably doing what I want to do and to share it with as many people as possible."