“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw
Hilário Freire, founder of Spot Real, is starving. “Do you mind if I grab some coffee and cake?” He asks. It’s a hot day in the west of Lisbon. We’re standing outside a warehouse which Hilário converted into Portugal’s first parkour academy in 2015. “We’ll just go across the road,” he says. We cross over to a cute, typically Portuguese cafe with mosaic floors and bright tapestries on the walls. The neighbourhood is up-and-coming – I can tell by the converted warehouses and artisanal coffee shops.
While Hilário munches on coffee cake he explains the concept behind his parkour academy and how he discovered the sport. “I started parkour when I was 22,” he says. “I’m 35 now. Before that I did martial arts but since I discovered parkour it’s all I’ve wanted to do.” Hilário fell in love with the playfulness of parkour. When he first started out there were no parkour gyms in Lisbon – so he and a small group of five or six people would use the city as their training ground. “You don’t start on rooftops,” Hilário says. “You start on ground level. So every piece of stone I could find and rocks and trees and walls I would try and jump over as smoothly as possible. I’d film it to try and improve my techniques.”
To an outsider parkour is terrifying. Sprinting up walls, flipping off boulders, running over rooftops. But Hilário explains that everybody starts small. “I learnt all my flips at the beach,” he says. After several years training on the streets of Lisbon, Hilário decided to follow his passion and open the first parkour gym in Portugal with three partners. “There were gyms all over Europe but there was nothing in Portugal. We found this place and it was completely destroyed. We built everything up from the ground.”
At Spot Real Hilário trains people of all ages and fitness backgrounds – from teenage girls to 50 year old men. And since he opened the gym Portugal’s parkour community has grown from a handful to hundreds of people. “It’s all about comfort zone,” Hilário says. “We only practice inside our comfort zone. So now your comfort zone is very small. But soon that gets boring and you’ll try something a little different and then your comfort zone expands. And that’s how you improve over the years.”
It’s time to put his theory to the test. Hilário finishes his cake and we head back to the warehouse. Inside Spot Real looks like a giant playground. There are mats, bars, boulders, foam pits, mattresses, platforms and obstacles of all heights and sizes – things I’ll soon have to jump, flip and dive off. My comfort zone feels very small right now and I very much want to stay inside it.
I run around the gym to warm up, hopping over various obstacles in my way. “Our first exercise – jump over this pommel horse.” Hilário says. He shows me how to put one leg up and hop over to the other side. It’s almost my shoulder height so the first attempt is scary. I go very slowly. The next attempt is faster and better, and the third I sail right over it. “Okay – now don’t use your foot, just jump and twist over the other side,” Hilário says. This is a lot more intimidating but after two attempts I’m able to do it. After I complete each task Hilário introduces a new, more difficult one. But he’s right – it’s all about expanding your comfort zone and I progress quickly.
After a few balancing exercises Hilário says “Now it’s time to scale that wall.” That escalated quickly I think to myself. He points to a high wall, almost double my height, with a bar at the top. “Run up, grab that bar and pull yourself up,” he instructs.
“I can’t do that,” I say.
“Yes you can.” He says.
I take a deep breath, back up and run as fast as I can towards the wall. I grab the bar and heave myself up.
“See!” He says triumphantly as I look down at him from on top of the ledge. “You were standing down here saying you couldn’t do it and now you’re standing up there!” I feel so proud I could burst. “Now do it again.” He says.
Every time I complete one task Hilário gives me a harder one. That’s why my stomach fills with dread when he points to the foam pit. It’s a swimming-pool sized pit full of bits of foam and mattresses. One side is about 1.5 meters high and the other is about 3 meters high. I stare down to the foam below me and Hilário says “Turn and fall onto the mattress. It’s called a trust fall.” (I instantly rename it ‘death drop.’)
I know I have to just get it over and done with, so I turn around, put my arms to the side and fall backwards into the pit. My stomach drops but as soon as I land I feel my adrenaline levels soar. “Amazing!!! Hilário says. “Well done!!!!” He’s delighted, but I know it isn’t over. “Now do a front flip.”
“Absolutely not.” I respond. This I cannot do. I’m just too scared. Hilário drags a mattress on to the platform and tells me to do a few somersaults instead. Easy! I think. But after a few minutes Hilário suggests I try a front flip again.
I stand on the edge of the foam pit feeling slightly nauseous, but because I’m used to the movement of flipping forward I somehow don’t feel so scared. This time I take a deep breath and go for it.
“YES!!! Well done!” Hilário says as I land on my back in the foam. “But the first time doesn’t count, it could be a fluke. You have to do it again.” God damn it. I climb out of the pit and repeat the fiasco, exhausted and exhilarated from the fear and adrenaline.
“The grand finale,” Hilário says. “Do the death drop from the 3 metre ledge.” I feel physically sick as I make my way over to the higher platform. When I get there I look at him and say: “If I do this is that the end? No more?”
“No more.” He says. “Promise.”
So I turn around, close my eyes and fall backwards into thin air.
If you’d like to try parkour then check out one of our many parkour partners across Europe.
And the website of Spot Real Academia Lisboa for all their latest news, events and updates.