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LEEDS 2023 in conversation with parkour world champion David Nelmes

David Nelmes in Leeds, by Christopher Werrett

As the main star of our ‘One Year To Go’ campaign, we sat down for a chat with parkour athlete David Nelmes to discuss the sport and how he feels about his home city.

How do you feel about being the star of the the LEEDS 2023 ‘One Year to Go’ video? 

It feels amazing to be part of LEEDS 2023. Acting as an ambassador for the city as well as for parkour is a big deal. And being the face of the video and repping Leeds is kind of surreal! I hope when people watch it they’re able to appreciate the sport as well as all the places we visited and the people who were involved. I hadn’t been to some of the venues before – shooting the video made me aware of just how much there is going on in Leeds.

Working with David Ntantu was great too. I’ve known him on social media for quite a while. We’ve shot videos together, and I’ve used his songs in my videos. It was really cool to see him perform in person. It’s so great to see him getting more popular – I love that his track Tomorrow is being used for something so big. His style is amazing – he has stuff that’s both fast-paced and feelgood, it really lends itself to parkour.

It was great to run around inside the Howard Assembly Room and jump down from the balcony behind the stage. The whole aesthetic and the lighting was really cool. Plus it was warm and dry! I also liked being able to dash around inside Kirkgate Market and Bramley Baths. And I loved diving through the window at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. It had snowed that day, so we had to wipe everything down with towels to make it safe! 

Parkour is a very creative sport, so you have options in almost any environment – as long as you test the structure and ground to make sure it’s safe. When space is tight, it can be much more challenging to make the movements work. You have to get more innovative to create jumps and lines; to make something out of nothing. I could see things I wanted to do, but pulling them off wasn’t always simple.

Memories from the WPF Camp 2019, Basel, Switzerland, by Julien Blanc.

Growing up in Leeds, what inspired you to get into parkour and freerunning?

As a kid I was always very active. I liked getting out and about on my bike or my rollerblades. I did gymnastics at primary school and high school, competing in the under-14s at a national level. I also did karate and swimming, but I found a lot of these sports very constraining and eventually got bored of them. I like to self-express with different styles of movement, so none of these activities ever really suited me.

Parkour was the perfect mixture of acrobatics and freedom. I discovered people doing it on Youtube when I was 15, completely by chance. There were loads of popular videos from France, and a big one from the UK. I was hooked immediately. I started out practising in my garden on a trampoline, recreating moves I’d seen online. Then I started practising in the local park – I’m from Cross Gates, so I’d head over to Temple Newsam.

I found people on Facebook who were also doing it nearby, so I decided to go along and meet up with them. Outside Leeds Library was the main spot – there were loads of young people like me just turning up to give it a try. You could go out any day of the week, and there would be people there – on a Saturday there might be up to as many as 40 or 50 people.

My family didn’t really get it at first – I think they thought it was all a bit silly. These days they think it’s a great sport, they just don’t particularly like the stuff that takes place at height. I usually show them clips of what I’ve been doing after they’ve already been posted online. My grandma never thought much of it until I started getting more successful and she realised I could make money from it!

Is there anything specific about the architecture of Leeds that lends itself to parkour?

Leeds is one of the top three cities in the UK for parkour. There are plenty of stable structures and strongly built walls with good grip. As a city with a wide variety of buildings and public spaces, I’d say Leeds has somewhere in the region of 70 decent places for training. Libraries, schools, colleges and universities are always great spots – they tend to have plenty of walls and staircases. 

Older buildings are normally better than newer ones. Modern buildings are sometimes designed specifically to prevent skating and parkour – they include features like small bars or pointy walls to prevent jumping. Things are always changing though – spots get knocked down and new ones built. It’s all about discovering new places.

Near Leeds Library is still one of the best spots – there are so many things you can do there, whether you’re a beginner or operating at a more advanced level. There are big jumps and small ones, and lots of options to do flips. Millennium Square is another cool public space. All around the University of Leeds is great, and near the Royal Armouries down at Leeds Dock. Another great area is the estate over the road from Leeds City College’s Park Lane campus.

In general, this country really lends itself to parkour – apart from the weather! It’s a lot riskier when it’s wet. You can slip more easily – it’s harder to get a proper grip with your feet. So if it’s raining, you have to find somewhere indoor or head to a parkour gym. But I also think the lack of good weather makes us train harder when the sun does come out – we know we only have a small amount of time, so we maximise it.

FISE 2019, Montpellier, France.

What skills and disciplines make someone great at parkour? 

Everyone’s style and movement is unique. Different body types lend themselves to different styles of movement. Some people are more flip based, others are much more technical. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall, short, big, small – I think anyone who is physically fit, agile and strong can do parkour. But for me it’s as much about the mental game. The average person can jump 14 or 15 feet if they try, but they need to have the mental strength and discipline to believe they can make it. 

Parkour is all about useful, efficient movement in its truest, purest form. When it comes to freestyle competitions, it doesn’t matter if you’re heavy or short, as long as you have a natural flow. For speed competitions, it’s better to be lighter and have more agility, because you need to move faster. Chase tag is all about being agile, and being small helps as there are lots of tight gaps to get through. In general, being tall is good for bigger jumps, but being small is better for flips. 

How has parkour shaped your life and career? 

I started out doing it just for fun, and now it’s such a big part of my life. It’s helped with my mindset towards everything. It’s shaped my personality, my confidence, my problem-solving abilities. It translates from a sport into your day-to-day life. It really helps you hone your mental game. It’s also fuelled my passion for video production – a lot of my training is about creating content.

Before Instagram was popular, everyone in the community used YouTube. So everyone who’s been doing it the past decade are traditional filmmakers – these days most people shoot on their phones, but we got into it before that was an option. Like lots of other parkour athletes, it really pushed me to improve my filmmaking skills. I learned how to use different cameras, edit videos and fly drones – all because of parkour. 

When I commit to something, I give it my complete attention. That applies to both parkour and filmmaking. With parkour, I used to train every day from 9am to 10pm. With my filming business I made sure to get myself out there, marketing myself, hustling to get the work. I push myself whenever I’m doing something I enjoy. Parkour has taken me to places I never expected. When you’ve exhausted all the spots in a city, you end up looking further afield to try new things and collaborate with different people.

It’s helped me make amazing friends and learn how to coach others. Parkour has a really collaborative community that feels like one big family. It’s a niche sport, so everyone knows everyone. You get that instant connection whenever you meet someone else who does parkour. I always want to help other people to get better, even if it means they eventually go on to beat me! It’s a very supportive community – we all push each other to do better and better.

Where has your athletic career taken you?

I’ve travelled all over the world through parkour, meeting a lot of people, making a lot of friends. I’ve really enjoyed getting to explore different cultures. Competing in Japan and China was pretty sick – both were really cool experiences. I’ve probably been to some of the best places for parkour in Europe – Madrid is one of the best in the world, along with Lisbon, Hamburg and Paris. 

Dubai rooftop, by Alexander Titarenko; sunest over Santorini, by Brodie Pawson; WPF Camp 2019, Basel, Switzerland, by Julien Blanc.

When it comes to parkour, every country has its own unique style. In Spain, people are very flowing and smooth. In France – where parkour originally started – they prefer old-school big jumps and drops. In Germany people seem to be more technical, usually focusing on skill-based styles. The UK tends to be the most well-rounded – we have the most winners of competitions, the best athletes and the biggest teams.

Before the pandemic, I was travelling all over the world for events and competitions – I tried to attend as many as I could. Looking ahead, I’d love to go to Australia – it’s one country I’ve yet to explore. The parkour scene is very good over there – I have a lot of friends there too, so that would be a cool place to train. It’s probably top of my list, along with some places in the US.

Is parkour as risky as it sometimes looks? 

It’s only risky when people attempt stuff they’ve seen online for the first time. You start off small, and work your way up to it – build up to performing moves at heights. In fact, we rarely train at height – it’s a misconception that we always go high. We spend 99% of our time training at the ground level. At height, you do stuff that is physically simpler – I’d never do the same scale of jumps on top of a building as I would down on the ground. It’s all about the reward of the mental game at height. 

This sport has been around for more than forty years, and it’s been mainstream for at least thirty. In all that time there have only been two or three serious incidents, which are usually down to someone doing something in an unsafe building somewhere. I’ve changed my mind once I’ve arrived where a challenge is taking place. That’s down to experience. You know when it feels wrong. 

When I was in Dubai for a photo shoot, we decided to check out the rooftop and found these interesting gaps. I started checking it was safe, jumping smaller gaps first. You have to do the prep and make sure the grip is good. I practised for an hour or more before I did the strides over the big drop. So what you don’t see in the video clip is all my years of experience plus all the testing and practising beforehand. It’s a very calculated sport.

It’s all about being careful and safe. If you’re doing something dangerous or sketchy, the parkour community won’t respect you. There’s a famous quote we always keep in mind – “What is power without control?” It’s all about doing things within your limits and not pushing yourself for the sake of it. I feel like I have a responsibility to show how safe I’m being.

Do you have any advice for people curious about getting into parkour? 

You have to put in the time to build up your resilience. Start small, and always be safe. As I said before, it’s all about the mental side. I was never really nervous about throwing myself at a wall because I spent most of my childhood climbing things and falling off bikes. Usually, the more you train, the more confident you get, the less nerves you get. You get stronger – mentally and physically. 

I’d recommend hitting the gym to build up your strength. Back when I was starting out, people didn’t really go to the gym too often. But as we’re getting older we appreciate how important it is. It’s reaching the point where I can’t bounce back quite as fast as I used to, so you go to the gym to help your body last longer – it’s a great way to keep things tuned up. 

David Nelmes in Leeds, by Christopher Werrett

I’d also say watch what you eat. Like most sports, it helps a lot. I’ve always been mindful about my diet – I try not to have too many takeaways or too much sugar. I know a lot of people in parkour who have switched to a vegan diet. Whatever you choose, it’s all about making sure you’re fueling your body with a healthy balance of protein and carbs to help with recovery.

What are your hopes for LEEDS 2023 and its legacy?

I think it will be really great for the city. Shining a light on art, sport and other activities is really cool. It shows the city off in a positive light, and it makes people see the value they have as individuals. It has the power to lift them up. I’ve always thought Leeds is one of the best cities to live in anyway. It’s big enough to have so much exciting stuff going on, but small enough to get around easily. It’s the best of both worlds.

I’m also hoping my small part in it will encourage people to give parkour a try, or pursue other hobbies outside the mainstream. It’s great to see less common stuff get the limelight. Parkour can still be seen as a joke by people who don’t get it, so I’m hoping showing it in its natural form will help the sport gain some respect and earn recognition in the wider culture. At the end of the day, it’s a great way to get healthy, stay fit and explore somewhere you love. There’s so much more to it than meets the eye.