"They're telling me you want to get sendy."
I do not know what that means, I tell the man I've just met, but I guess I'll try it.
He reminds me that when I arranged this, a session in Manhattan's Riverside Park to test out a pair of sneakers from parkour footwear brand Ollo, I said over email that I preferred to do "whatever is craziest in order to make this story as interesting as possible." In person, I am less certain the shoes will give me the courage to bound across concrete ledges and tumble elegantly down stairs, but I agree to at least try and get somewhat sendy. I am not entirely athletic, but have shaped my squat frame into a runner's through regular mileage and even, one time, a marathon. I am comfortable running on the ground, not across rooftops.
The young man charged with transforming me in this hour from humble servant of gravity to urban acrobat is Joe Gilberg, who belongs to a parkour group called The Movement Creative. He's also here to talk to me about Ollo's new models, the Alpha and the Sapien X, which are available now via a Kickstarter preorder that's expected to ship in February 2021. I chose the Sapien X because it sounds like something Dr. Zaius or a breakdancing primate might wear.
Gilberg tells me he wore older versions of these same shoes while training, and that he finds the new version much lighter and more refined. Ollo bills both as performance sneakers co-designed by actual parkour people. They are low and light, the Alpha's silhouette looking something like the Vans UltraRange from 2017 and the Sapien X's looking vaguely like an Air Max 1 Fuse from the toe-down perspective. Both have flat bottoms, because grip is important when you're getting sendy.
What am I going to do in my pair? Land. That's all that's being asked of me at first.
"That's what you gotta do," Gilberg says, starting my tutorial at the very basics. We jump in the grass together, feet locked midair. I can feel the wind rush my toes through the shoes' breathable zones, and I can feel the diners behind the patch of grass we're practicing on either watching me or watching the Statue of Liberty in the distance. I do not feel entirely comfortable, but I do not blame the Ollo sneakers.
This first move is the precision jump, a motion that ends in a position Gilberg likens to sitting in a chair. This is perfect for me, a person who has spent much of his life sitting in chairs. Any parkour move that involves me sitting down, preferably in a chair, I am confident I can execute. Gilberg is similarly confident in me, although he notes I am sitting too far back in my invisible chair.
Next we work on the parkour roll. This is a modified somersault that doesn't feel super practical, but looks cool enough when my instructor does it, so I feel like it's worth adding to my repertoire. My roll is more croissant, fragile in its spiraling. I flip over from a crouching position in the grass again and again, a cartoon gasp shooting from my lungs when my back thuds flat on the ground. This is not how it's supposed to happen.
"A lot of people have trouble with this," Gilberg says. "You aren't alone in that."'
The sneakers aren't doing much for me while I hone the move—on grass, this isn't an action that feels like it needs much from footwear. As I struggle to perfect it, Gilberg tells me about Georges Hébert, a French naval officer who developed a proto form of parkour in the early 1900s after observing the movement of indigenous peoples in Africa. After that, David Belle, also of France, created modern parkour in the 1990s. It is clear to me as I roll that while I may have more advanced footwear than they first did, I lack the physical awareness and general courage of these Frenchmen.
"I feel like you have it," Gilberg says while I roll. He is clearly lying to me.
"Are you dizzy?" he asks. No, I respond, and now I am lying to him.
Next is my first real jump, from one concrete ledge a foot off the ground to another, and what could be my last. My instructor demonstrates for me, hopping from one raised curb to the other in the park in a fluid motion like an eager Mario. On the last one, he plants his hands as he lands and uses them to launch his body forward, rocking his arms back in the air in an animal-like posture. He tells me I could do this.
I could? Really?
"No, I'm just saying a person could," he says. "You may, in time."
A white-haired woman in a beach chair is spectating, and then so is another woman in a safari hat. I do as I'm told, jumping from one raised spot to another, but at this point it feels like I'm just jumping and not doing anything one could reasonably call parkour.
The sneakers do help in this. They aren't propelling me any higher, as far as I can tell, but I don't skid as I stop on the way down, my feet planting firm in my landing place. The toe box feels a little roomy during this descent—when I hit my target there's more motion there than I'd like. I'm not really reaping the "speed, agility, and precise maneuvering" of the Ollo Sapien X's custom curved last promised to me in the pitch, but maybe Gilberg can get me there.
"You can definitely do this," he says, upgrading me while I attempt a line that goes: run, whip body up first concrete slab, jump swiftly onto the edge of the next, leap from there to the last one, land sitting down in a smooth motion, and kick legs out to slide off at the finish.
I figure it out eventually, kinda. Not fully harnessing the power of my Ollos, I crank myself over the modest obstacles like a janky Rube Goldberg machine, linking my motions just barely and keeping things at a safe, not-so-sendy speed. I think the woman in the safari hat is impressed.
At this point, we are pretty much done for the day, because the instructor, the photographer who's here to capture my goofy attempts, and I all agree that the next move isn't really a reasonable one, given my skill set. Originally, there was a plan to have me jump off a brick wall about 14 feet up.
"Brendan, I don't think you should do that," the photographer says.
Instead, I practice jumping up stairs and watch from above as Gilberg tries to scale his way up the brick. He runs and kicks at the wall, clawing at the smooth facade as he edges higher. It is clear to me in this moment that Ollo is one palindrome I won't be wearing for a while. The shoes serve their purpose, but that purpose is not mine. After an hour of jumping and rolling, twisting my axes and defying gravity in the most conservative way possible, I feel destined to remain mostly earthbound.
Gilberg summits the wall, his fingertips finessing the edge and then lifting his body weight above it. I am hesitant about the sweaty dap he goes for afterward, but he earned it, so I grant it. Originally, I was supposed to jump off this same ledge. I settle for sliding down the staircase's railing.
"That's parkour, technically," the photographer says.