He stares at a white wall a few metres in front of him. He thinks for a moment, takes a deep breath and runs towards it. Using his right foot as a lever, he steps on the bricks and performs a backflip, landing on the pavement while keeping his balance. What might seem an unthinkable movement for the majority of people is the daily life of Zardy de Haan.
The tall, 26-year-old Dutchman from Leeuwarden, in the north of the Netherlands, is a practitioner of free running, also known as parkour. Parkour.com, a reference webpage for the sport, defines it as “a discipline founded by David Belle in France in the early 1990s”. Quoting the Belle himself, the website explains that “parkour is a method of training which allows us to overcome obstacles, both in the urban and natural environments”.
On another casual day, Zardy prepares for a jump which requires more concentration. Shirtless, his athletic body stands meters high above the ground, on the rooftop of a parking garage. The obstacle is a gap between the rooftop and a wall top on the opposite side. He sprints towards the ledge, his legs bounce as a metal spring and he leaps.
As with other radical activities such as skateboarding and rollerblading, free running is a way of reading the city as if it was a playground. By performing tricks in buildings where, in De Haan’s words, “architects didn’t even think about someone jumping on those walls”, its players interact with the surroundings in a playful fashion. “Just to mess around with the environment”, he laughs.
Zardy has been practicing what he considers as an art form for ten years. It’s a physical exercise, but it’s also very creative: the sport is new and tricks are being invented. “When you look at some parkour videos, the guys are so creative with the manoeuvres, there are so many new things you haven’t seen before that it blows your mind. And art is supposed to blow your mind as well”, he says.
Defying gravity was never a big issue for small Zardy. As a kid, he used to climb on house roofs and scare his parents by jumping off tops of parking garages. The word he uses to describe the childhood phase is “daredevilish”. “I was crazy, I jumped all kinds of stuff, just to see if I could, I was always searching for my boundaries, always looking for challenges”.
That was even before he started skateboarding, at 6, because he wanted to do tricks and impress people. His childhood imagination was fuelled by the iconic Chinese stuntman and actor Jackie Chan, who mixed martial arts with acrobatic movements in movies popular in the ’70s. De Haan didn’t expect that, a few years into his adolescence, he would meet a guy and have his life changed by the encounter.
Upon turning 15, he made a new friend, a gifted break dancer who also happened to have the talent to execute wall flips. Zardy asked for a lesson, and within one hour was already able to mimic the movement, which he found “very easy”. Around the same period, he came across the milestone video for the parkour community: a black-and-white short film starring free running mastermind David Belle.
Entitled “On Avance Toujours” – which translates roughly as “We Keep Advancing” – the recording shows Belle hopping from building to building, like a Spider Man amusing himself. It encapsulates the philosophy behind free running, that is, the conquest of fears. As Zardy puts it: “the main thing is that I like to challenge myself, and parkour is about it: challenging yourself to overcome fears, get out of your comfort zone”.
This was in 2006, when the remake of the James Bond film “Casino Royale” was released. It featured a long parkour scene, which helped spread knowledge of the practice all over the world. Another important contextual factor was (and still is) the recognition of the sport in the Netherlands, with a community of enthusiasts and the support of city halls. Besides specialised indoor training facilities, there are free running parks in several parts of the country: Groningen, Heerenveen, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Eindhoven.
Skills to pay the bills
A decade of practice gave De Haan the technique necessary to carry out risky movements, as one can tell by looking at his popular Instagram account (@zardydehaan), counting more than four thousand followers. The free runner is especially proud of a video shot in his hometown posted on August 12, 2016, in which he front-flips over a balcony rail two stories high, landing smoothly on a grassy rooftop on the other side of the street.
“It is dangerous but there are ways to be comfortable with heights”, he explains. The athlete acknowledges that this leap was the most difficult he ever performed, and it took him seven years to summon the courage to do it. “There’s no need to rush into jumps like that. You have to be very focused on what you do, because if you fuck up, you can die. So you can’t fuck up, and only do it when you’re feeling 100% comfortable”.
Throughout his years as a member of the free running crew, the sportsman has been building a network that is now active in order for him to try and make a living out of his passion. Two months ago, he was fired from his regular job as a web carer for Post.nl, the Dutch mail company for whom he used to respond to online demands from customers, and then decided to commit 100% to the parkour lifestyle.
To make ends meet, multitasking is fundamental. He recently did some stunt work for the next Christopher Nolan feature film, “Dunkirk”, which will hit the screens in 2017. He frequently acts as a model in photo-shoot sessions for sportswear brands, as well as a performer at events such as store openings and concerts.
Zardy is waiting for passers to go by an Amsterdam bridge that runs above a canal. At a moment when no one is coming, he rushes towards the fence, pushes his feet against the ground and projects his thin body in the air, covering with a front flip the space that ends in the surface coming off a wall facing the bridge. Below, the water flows gently. Upon landing the trick, the serious look in his eyes gives way to a shy smile.