On the rails

A cohort of children in Liverpool are becoming real highfliers at a centre dedicated to parkour and other aerial sports

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When Airborn Academy opened its huge Liverpool premises, largely dedicated to training for the parkour discipline, during 2014 it appeared a massive gamble. Alternatively referred to as freerunning, parkour is a niche pastime and was, back then, relatively new.

Practitioners navigate outdoor urban landscapes using a combination of jumps, rolls, vaults, swings and climbs. It’s spectacular, athletic and a great way for people of all ages to keep fit. Thankfully, the Merseyside operation was an immediate success.

“The first day we opened we had 700 people through the door,” says director and coach Ryan Doyle, who has been involved with the organisation since day one. “Over the previous two months we’d had everyone turning up with hammer and nails to get the place ready. It was a real community effort.”

Much like the sport of freerunning itself, Airborn Academy had grown organically, with roots reaching back to 2006 when Ryan and his brother Anthony took their enthusiasm for parkour into local schools.

“Martial arts were my passion back then,” Anthony recalls. “And a lot of the movements from that translate well to parkour. I trained to be a primary school teacher so I took things from the PE syllabus, combined them with parkour and worked them into a curriculum that made things accessible for schools, and we grew from there.”

Word soon began to get around the community and, with help from Jean-Paul Jesstice, Julia and Martin Tsang, Giselle Partridge and Chad Thompson, the operation began to expand. The Airborn team rented gym space and progressed to a local gymnastics centre, which was the first time they’d utilised a sprung floor.

“Before we knew it we were sitting around a table looking for a permanent venue and discussing what we could fill it with,” says Anthony. “Since then we’ve expanded to do freerunning, trampolining, cheerleading, aerial silks and we’ve a studio for breakdancing. At first I did worry it might be a bit of a fad but it seems like freerunning is here to stay and Liverpool has developed a really strong scene for it.

“And another thing we found is that, for whatever reason, when young lads get to a certain age they start to see gymnastics as something more associated with girls so we’re a way for both boys and girls to stay involved with something physical.”

Visiting the academy it’s obvious all the coaching staff are knowledgeable and encouraging. The building, part of the Liverpool Film Studios complex in Vauxhall, often has several classes running simultaneously, with participants of all ages trampolining, leaping, tumbling and rolling throughout the high-roofed, warehouse-like space.

Emma Triner is a cheerleading coach at Airborn – alongside acting as facilities manager – and says inclusivity is an important factor.

“The coaches are great at adapting to every child’s needs. We’ve always got our doors open and there will always be a place for anyone to start with us. On the cheerleading side we have athletes from three years old right up to a masters team where we have ladies up to 59. And they all love it.

“It’s amazing to see kids coming out of their shells here, really developing, and it does feel like we’re a family. We are an added support network for some and if there’s no one else they can talk to about things, they can come to us in a place where they can also find things to do that they really love.”

Children in non-mainstream schools also attend during weekdays, says Anthony.

“We find they can relax and enjoy our equipment. Some schools even use a visit to us as a reward for good school work and good behaviour. It’s always really rewarding to see all kids getting more and more skills under their belts, getting their progress booklets stamped. It’s also great to see children making new friends and cheering each other on – these are all things you can’t get from playing video games.”

With Triner talking of expansion – “It’s great where we’re based at the moment, but it’s just not big enough now” – and Anthony talking of opening a similar facility in a second city, it seems like what began as little more than passion for a nascent sport is paying dividends.

“But I don’t think I’ll be jumping around so much in the future,” laughs Anthony, now 39. “It’s time to grow the business with my mind a bit more, rather than my knees.”

Pulled up by his bra straps

When it comes to freerunning, 38-year-old Ryan Doyle is both a literal and metaphorical highflyer.

Currently a director of Airborn Academy – and occasional coach, when his schedule allows – the sport has taken the native Liverpudlian all around the world. His CV now includes acting, working as a stunt-double, television presenting, running a talent agency and a brace of victories in the Red Bull Art of Motion event, freerunning’s de facto World Cup.

“Parkour wasn’t really a thing when I started, so our generation really spawned the sport by creating new movements or taking things from indoor gymnastics and adapting them for the outdoor world,” he says.

Despite what even the briefest browse through his YouTube channel may lead you to believe, Doyle insists his chosen sport is a safe one.

“Once you’ve got the basics – which are learning how to fall, how to roll and how to protect your head – you can really enjoy the air-time knowing you can land safely. It’s all very calculated. People don’t see the hundreds of hours of training, just someone doing a flip between the roofs of two buildings.”

Has there been a single highlight during his hugely successful career?

“When I was living out in the States things went full on and I was getting calls from everywhere. I ended up being a stunt double for Ellen DeGeneres and had permission to climb and jump on everything I wanted at Universal Studios in Florida.

“The catch was I had to shave my legs and wear a bra.”

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