The world’s most recognizable professional freerunner, Jesse La Flair has a creative style and unique approach to movement. With over 325,000 YouTube subscribers, he is the most subscribed to Pro freerunner and parkour athlete in the world. The Team PowerBar athlete boasts multiple national and international podium finishes. When he’s not competing, his fans can follow his stuntman work in commercials, tv shows and major motion pictures such as X-Men, Divergent and 300: Rise of an Empire.
We went behind the scenes with La Flair as he gets set to compete in Team Ninja Warrior. Clocking in the fastest qualifying time two years in a row, we spoke to the parkour athlete on how he stays creative, what he does in order to prepare for competition and what sets him apart from other athletes in the game.
What initially got you started in parkour?
I was always involved in action sports-skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding. I liked the feeling of going fast and having the experience of flight so I was always pushing the boundaries of what was possible. In college, I saw some guys doing backflips off of ledges and I thought that’s cool, I can do that. They quickly explained to me, “we’re not just doing backflips, we’re doing parkour”. Parkour is about overcoming obstacles; how you use what’s around you in order to move through your environment. I started training and was hooked. In parkour, I have complete control over my body and can do things that most people would not think is possible, until they see it.
Shortly after graduating, I moved to New York City. I needed to make some money so I started working random jobs. I came across an audition that asked for a parkour athlete in a Kodak commercial. Let me preface this with, at that time, I was not very good. But they had never seen anything on that level before. After that audition, I was thrown into the entertainment world. Immediately, I loved that it was such a creative collaboration. Since parkour was in its early stages as a sport, no one had any expectations of what it should be like and what was possible. I would get on a set it was literally “here is the environment, what do you think you can do in it?’
Coming from art school, I loved the artistic visual aspect of what I was doing. Freerunning, which incorporates acrobatic and aesthetic moves into parkour, was another opportunity to creatively express myself. Around that same time, I started my YouTube channel. I posted my first video and at the end I said “If I get to ten subscribers, I’ll do another video.” Once I got to ten, I posted my second video. At the end, I said “If I get to 50 subscribers, I’ll do another video.” This was before the days of internet marketing. My YouTube channel started with a small group of kids and freerunners. I learned more and more about the sport and really grew with it in a lot of ways. Eventually my wife and I decided to move to LA which opened up a lot more opportunities for me in the sport.
You have a background in video production, did you ever see your two passions combining so seamlessly for your career?
I’ve always been interested in film. I have my Bachelors of Fine Arts with a concentration in Video Art. Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in the art world. I’ve shown thirteen art films worldwide. Having a film background has really complemented my career as a parkour athlete.
Parkour as a sport has always been shared through video. Freerunners in London would watch videos of the tricks guys were doing in LA that no one had ever seen before. As time has gone on, video production has gotten bigger. I love the idea of storytelling through video; creating shots that the human eye can’t see- micro-shots, slow-motion film. As we talk I’m sitting in a camera shop; I’m always working on how I can improve and be a better storyteller through film.
When you create your freerunning routines, what comes first, visualizing the moves or doing a trick and expanding from there?
It’s a small mix of both. I continue to challenge my creativity by finding locations that offer something new. I think freerunners can get stuck on trying to recreate a trick they’ve seen someone else perform and they lose focus on the beauty of the location. One of the first things I always do is try to figure out a combo or technical movement that is only possible because of the location itself. Where is the fire hydrant? How can I use that fire hydrant to do a move that I couldn’t do elsewhere? What does this specific space allow me to do? I’m not focused on doing specific tricks but the exploration of movement. I have solid fundamentals and control over my body so now it’s just about flexing the movement. I always consider myself a student of the sport. If I continue to explore and discover new areas of opportunity, it could be a game changer in terms of what were capable of as athletes.
How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally before a competition?
I always feel nerves when I compete. The scariest part of competing is the possibility of not having self-control. In competitions, I always do one trick that I haven’t yet perfected. I think I get too caught up in the idea of trying to challenge myself and show people a move that they’ve never seen before. I’m learning as a competitive athlete that what might be easy or basic to me isn’t necessarily easy or basic to anyone else.
In order to prepare for a competition, I try to lock in tricks and think about multiple move combinations. It’s all about the progression; getting there, working the line, and eliminating the fear of competition by coming up with alternate moves if things don’t go as planned. I go through multiple scenarios before I compete to save myself from having to make decisions in the moment. If I don’t land a trick when I’m practicing, I think of what else I can do in that situation. If I’m falling backward, I can do a backflip. If I’m falling forward, I can turn it into a front flip. I go through all the what ifs and plan for a,b,c and d and work it out in practice before the competition. I would rather be confident and tired than fearful and fit.
Do you ever find yourself hesitating when you’re coming back from an injury?
There was a time when I had pushed my body beyond its limits. As a result, I had some swelling in my back. It was after a 15 country and 25 city tour and when it was finished I was in the worst place I’ve ever been in physically. I couldn’t even step down let alone jump. But it fueled me to get back. I worked every day so I could feel the feeling of flight again. I kinda blocked out how much work it took to get back to where I am and what I’m still accomplishing at this level.
Can you talk about the relationship between social media and parkour?
The big thing about marketing in social media is giving people information they need. The parkour tutorials that I created on my YouTube channel were out of necessity- there were no tutorials on parkour. There was one video that was two minutes long and had 500k views and didn’t teach you any fundamentals. I recognized that this is something people were interested in and decided to make a twenty minute tutorial. We went through the basics and how to progress so our audience could learn and apply it to what they were doing. Now eighty-something tutorials later, people have started to follow me and taken an interest in what else I’m doing.
I’m also in Hollywood with working jobs in movies. Through social media, people can live through me and be inspired by the work that I’ve done. It can change their perspective on their own life. We have a platform to entertain and inform and hopefully be an example for others to live their dreams and live their life like they imagined when they were kids.
You’ve been in movies and tv shows but what the coolest thing you’ve done thus far?
Personally, being a stunt double in X-Men. I remember pretending as a kid to be X-Men and now I’m spending three hours in a makeup chair and three months on set to be Nightcrawler. Luckily, I’m in a place where I get to collaborate and push what a character can do.
You’re a pioneer in the sport, what do you do that sets you apart from others in the sport?
I just went after it. I set a goal for myself, created a path and made it happen. I didn’t start doing this because I thought it could be a career but I’ve made a life out of this. I take the sport personally and I have sacrificed a lot to get to where I am.
What’s next for Jesse La Flair?
I’ve based my life around the idea of trying to stay out of a cubicle. The ironic thing about being an entrepreneur is that I’ve chosen to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week. I love that there’s no typical day for me. I’m always thinking about what’s never been done before, what can I do to become a social icon. I’m not just trying to push my career but push the sport. I take the sport personally and I think if something’s good for parkour than we should do it. Even if it’s not great for me, if it will move the sport forward, we should do it. My goal is to be a legend in the world and the sport especially.