Downtown Flint a giant gym to parkour practitioner

Terray Sylvester
The Flint Journal

Flint — When Xavier Smith walks the streets of downtown Flint, he doesn’t see the urban landscape in quite the same way that most people do.

Instead, he sees extra opportunities.

The 27-year-old Flint native practices a sport called parkour, and so for him, walls become launch pads for front-flips and backflips, The Flint Journal reported. Railings serve as platforms for leaps and vaults. Stairwells can be spanned with a run and a dive. Sidewalks turn into terrain for handstands and somersaults.

“I love all the moves,” Smith said. “But the most important thing I love about parkour is how free you can be.”

Parkour is an outdoor, acrobatic improvisation, in which athletes ad-lib a variety of flips, leaps, dives and climbing moves while dashing from one location to another.

The sport originated in France according to the World Parkour and Freerunning Federation, and though it has spread around the rest of the globe, it remains somewhat obscure. To the best of Smith’s knowledge, he’s the only one who practices it seriously in Flint.

But the lack of local training partners — and competitors — hasn’t dulled his ambition.

Smith began teaching himself the sport after seeing a parkour video on the internet when he was 16 years old.

Last January, he was awarded a sponsorship from the WFPF, becoming one of very few sponsored WFPF athletes in the United States and the only one in Michigan.

A few months later, he finished in the top 20 at a large international competition, the Pro-Am Parkour Championship in Las Vegas.

Smith has channeled his passion for the sport into teaching, as well.

Eight years ago, he began attending tumbling classes organized by Flint’s Creative Expressions Dance Studio. In the years since, he’s become an instructor, teaching tumbling at Berston Field House to some 60 students each week.

Smith said he enjoys the work because he’s not just giving the students tips on how to throw flips, cartwheels and other gymnastic maneuvers, but also life skills like courage and determination.

“It’s good for the inner city,” he said. “After school, (kids) come to something that they actually like.”

In the spring, Smith and two other instructors plan to begin teaching tumbling and basic parkour skills in the Flint schools, too.

To Sheila Miller-Graham, director of Creative Expressions Dance Studio, it makes sense that he would keep pursuing teaching.

“He’s a great instructor, and has a great rapport with the students,” said Miller-Graham, who’s known Smith for nearly a decade. “He’s a natural at it.”

Miller-Graham expects him to follow parkour to new opportunities as well.

“He’s always flipping off of everything — the banisters, you name it,” she said. “I told him he needs to be on (the T.V. show) American Ninja Warrior.”

Smith has been thinking along similar lines.

“My goals are to be an actor (and) stuntman,” he said. “Parkour is something that I want to take with me — to keep going with it no matter what.”