13 Nov PROJEKT XIII
I never intended to make this video or tell this story, but I need to. Part of me wishes that I would have never had to carry this weight, but if I had the choice to go back, I wouldn’t. This is part of my story, and this chapter has shaped me more than any other. These have been the most difficult times of my life, and this is a story that very few people on this Earth know. One brimming with perplexing intricacies, innumerable moving parts, and more emotional conflict than I’d like to recall. And this is the most challenging story I have ever told, so please, bear with me.
I started my PROJEKT series during my 6th year of training as a means for myself to remember, reflect, and to track my progress within movement and life. For years, the series served as my visual journal, one that I’ve willingly shared because I wasn’t comfortable sharing it in words. It has always been easier for me to show rather than to tell, and even then, sharing has been difficult.
While I’ve always considered myself an open individual, I realized I was only open to external ideas and experiences and avoided anything that involved severe internal conflict. Introspection and honest intrapersonal communication have always been issues of mine, and sharing those emotions and experiences with anyone else was inconceivable. Lack of communication is the origin of this story. This is my ode to/for convalescence.
Some years back, I was engaged to be married to a beautiful individual whom I will not name out of respect. At the time, I had never been so confident of something before. But plans don’t always work out as anticipated, and even less so when there isn’t any functional communication involved. Over the next few years, everything we had built together had crumbled beneath us, but I couldn’t admit it; not to myself and certainly not to her.
Before this, I learned to love my outgoing nature and eventually embraced who I felt I was and wanted to be. The entire world was at my fingertips. Life was overflowing with love and beautiful experiences, new places and lovely people. It was a mask that covered the many internal troubles that I had abandoned.
Over the time we spent together, these things faded and I began losing sight of the person I wanted to be. We became distant, even while living in the same home and sharing the same bed. The things we had loved to share weren’t being shared. I started picking up her insecurities and emotional hindrances, adding them to my already unkempt being. The person who loved to hold a conversation with anyone and everyone: he wasn’t around to talk. The person who wanted nothing more than to travel the world in search of the treasures within experience: didn’t feel like searching. The person born with a fascination for locomotion of every kind, who had dedicated their entire life to the love and exploration of movement: stagnant. Everything that I loved, all that I aspired to be, my ambitions, my creativity, my ability to feel: gone.
It wasn’t her fault though. I allowed it to happen to me and we allowed what happened to us. As products of our environment, we willingly plunged ourselves so far into a space of comfortable discomfort that there was no coming back, at least not together. We were incapable of communicating without including emotional aggression, and even in moments of silence, I felt incapable of working through the emotional obstructions I had allowed myself to create.
I remember standing in the bathroom of our apartment, looking into the mirror…but at the same time, I don’t. It was almost as though there was no I present; only a witness. But not in a beautiful and harmonic sense of being or feeling everything. The only thing I honestly remember is the feeling, and it was a terrifying feeling. The person looking into the mirror was not the same person returning the gaze. I didn’t know them, and neither did they. All I could feel was the emptiness between these individuals. Then I remember being on the floor, being embraced by my roommate Lucas, and then nothing. Nothing before, after, or in between.
The three of us decided to take a trip to Colorado together and thought it might be a beneficial adventure. Maybe the beginning of something new for us.
We packed into the van of Eddie Opat, a fellow traveler whom we had met through Craigslist a few days before. On our way, we picked up two others, Dusan Popovic and Tyler Patrick Collins, who ended being beautiful travel companions as well. Even surrounded by so much positivity and good conversation, I could still feel the tension between her and me.
Colorado has always been a second home for me, and although the original family has spread apart, I was glad to be back. It felt good to be surrounded by so many familiar faces and meeting so many new ones. For the first time in a few years, I felt something. It was small, but I felt it growing.
We stayed with my friends Rob and Christian, and while I do remember my time being spent in good company, I only remember little bits of the trip. Van, driving, Des Moines, more driving, Boulder, training, eating with friends, bowling, blank, Denver, walking, gym, party, blank, cooking, leaving. Everything that I remember is quite vivid. The rest: an emotional blur.
That’s when I received an invitation that I felt I was waiting for but was not expecting. It was Daer Sanchez of Urban Runners, who had invited me alongside Joey Adrian, Daniel Ilabaca, Josh Yadon, Yoann Leroux, and Natasha Ivanova as a guest to the Urban Runners Reunión de Traceurs Nacional. I had always wanted to visit Mexico and had only heard incredible things about their community, and without any thought, I accepted, and a few days later I would be on my way to Mexico City.
It was the day of my departure and my brother Manu, who lives in Denver, was going to pick me up to take me to the airport. I say my goodbyes and my fiancé asks if we could wait outside together and talk while I waited. I agreed.
We sat in silence for some moments, and I knew something was wrong. It was the silence; it’s how it had always been between us. “I have something to tell you,” she said nervously, “but you deserve to know because I love you.” I already knew. I could feel it, I could see it, some part of me just knew the moment she said those words. She had cheated on me. She had gone on a family trip to California and met up with a friend who showed her around. It was out of comfort. Maybe it’s because this wasn’t the first. It had happened countless times before, and I guess a part of me either expected it to happen again or that it just didn’t matter. Either way, it didn’t seem to affect me the way I thought it would. She offered the alternative of an open relationship, which given our current circumstance, felt like slightly out of place suggestion and I became quite irritable. My brother arrived a few moments later, and I told her we would work things out upon my return to Pittsburgh.
A few hours later, I was flying into the concrete jungle that was Mexico City where Daer Sanchez eventually found me outside of the terminal. With everyone in the city, we took our things from Daer’s to the house where we were all staying. Being that I was enjoying my time in a new place with familiar and unfamiliar faces alike, I hadn’t thought much about what had happened before leaving Colorado.
Everyone respectively cleaned up as we prepared to head out and explore the city. Natasha was showering, and I was the last to take a rinse. Instead of packing our things, Joey, Josh, Daniel and I sat on the floor throwing hackysacks and lacrosse balls at each other while playing some mindful games, which eventually turned slightly more barbaric. This was the first time I had genuinely connected with people in a long time, and I was having a pleasant morning.
It usually doesn’t take me long to shower. Sure, there may be the occasional long, hot shower for post-training recovery, but it’s typically in and out. This wasn’t the case. I turned the water on, and as I was washing up, I felt a tremendous wave of emotion strike me, almost as if I had been hit by a car at high speed. I collapsed. I felt it all. Every single thing. And I cried uncontrollably. I don’t even know how long I lay on the floor. I just remember Joey calling from outside the bathroom asking if everything was alright but, I was incapable of answering him.
Joey and I had this instant connection and became rather close during this trip. I feel it was because we both had an eerily similar past, sharing far too many similar traumatic experiences, and for the first time in years, I opened up to someone. It was like knowing someone for a long time and having this earned trust, but in reality, we hadn’t.
The event itself was massive. Not exactly the kind of place I wanted to be after such a traumatic breakdown. The entire event hosted over 1,000 people spanning those two days and was by far the largest parkour event I had ever seen. And even though I was surrounded by an incredible community and some of the most welcoming people, my feet hardy lifted off of the ground. I just didn’t have the motivation or desire to enjoy the place or the company I was with. Outside of Daniel and I running a mindful workshop on some scaffolding, some pre-event swings with Josh, and a few minutes on a slackline, Joey and I spent a majority of the time talking and wandering around the park.
We eventually were lined up to provide autographs and take photos, which went on for some hours due to the sheer number of people at the event. Being inspired is one thing but, idolization is another, and I’ve never liked or understood the idea. We’re all human, and I have never understood why we would elevate someone above ourselves if we have the same potential. I hadn’t even shared a single experience with over half of these people: Why take a photo with me? Why create a memory when we had never shared anything? Because they liked my movement in a video? Because they had some idea of who I was without taking the time to know me?
Then I received a thank you and was handed a shirt. My movement had inspired this person, but instead of asking for something, he created something with me. Suddenly, this emotion swept in almost as quickly as the one that had knocked me down. But a metamorphosis occurred and the emptiness I held inside transformed into the most authentic smile I had experienced in years. I realized that during this time where I was supposed to be giving to and sharing with others but was unable, everyone was still here for me. Even though I had told nobody of my struggles, it’s almost as if they knew, and it didn’t matter. The effort to connect with me, to make me feel included, regardless of whether or not I accepted it, existed. So I turned my hatred of idolization into a tool for sharing and change.
Each person who came up was asked to sign the t-shirt I received first. I wanted them to know that they were equally as important and it was my secret thank you to them for an emotion that I hardly remembered. It was met with confusion at first, but at the end of our exchange, we had a mutual connection filled with hugs, laughter, and conversation.
Joey and I had grown tired by the repetition, and when it was over, we weren’t sure where we wanted to be. We decided to wander in a direction that seemed somewhat secluded, however, when we got there, Daniel was in this little nook giving a speech it seemed. And honestly, neither of us were in the mood for it, but we didn’t leave. Something drew us closer. There was this feeling, and it was strange, but it almost wanted us to stay. And even if we wanted to leave, we felt that couldn’t, so we listened.
It was a story actually and one that was unbelievably reminiscent of my own. It was a story of loss, helplessness, and a series of events that led him from this dark place into a place of love. And while there wasn’t some perfect ending, love was his guide to a new beginning. It was something we both felt connected to regardless of our beliefs and discussed the ideas through the night.
During the event, Joey and I ended up meeting two local traceuses, Lucia Suárez and Thamara Monroy, who offered to show us around the city and a place to sleep if needed. We ended taking them up on their offer for some floor space after exploring the city one day. That night, we cooked and ate an incredible meal together and watched a cheesy romance film in the form of the Notebook.
Sleeping that night was hard. Lucia lives in the direction of the airport and planes were regularly flying overhead. It wasn’t the noise though but, the fact that I would be leaving this pleasant experience soon. I knew being back in Pittsburgh would be challenging as it meant confronting many internal and external conflicts. But I felt refreshed and ready.
Things back home didn’t get better, and our relationship continued to spiral downward, becoming more and more complex and unforgiving. There was no space or time for personal reflection, and our lack of communication and unwillingness to listen made the task impossible. Eventually, I decided to do the only thing I felt could help us, and as difficult as I knew it would be, it needed to happen. I told her we needed to take some steps back, re-evaluate our current relationship, and try to fix the issues we had together and individually if we wanted to make this work. She took this as I wanted to end what we had, and while it was never the case, I wasn’t strong enough at that point to handle my decision maturely. I went on living almost as nothing had happened, trying to foster civility but, taking no real actionable steps toward a resolution. Eventually, we became intolerable to each other.
She decided to move back to New York, and I told her that after some time to organize things, I too would head there again, and we could try and work towards a brighter future together. But Mexico and their love had never left my mind.
Spring rolled around, and as I began to pack my things for the big city, I decided to make a last-minute trip back to Mexico to return the love that the community had given me. So I contacted my good friend Sebastián, told him I had planned to come down to offer a workshop, and asked if he was interested in helping me organize. He agreed and asked if I would be interested in having someone sponsor it. I agreed. The help came from a Mexican political party, Nueva Alianza, who dedicated many of their resources to educational opportunities. They secured a venue, acquired the same structure from the previous year’s jam, and best of all, made it free for everyone to attend.
Even though I have spent the last decade developing some of the most intensive, intricate, and diverse movement programs, I decided I would offer something different to the things they were accustomed to. I wanted to share this story with them and how they began to give me the tools to change my life. And I developed the perfect catalyst for this experiment: The Avatar.
Avatar the Last Airbender had become one of my favorite animated shows some years back and was adored by a vast majority of our community; however, I felt unbelievably connected with Korra’s personal development through the second series. So I decided to teach games inspired by physical and philosophical elements of the show, using the show as a conversation starter, giving me a platform to discuss mindfulness and change.
I asked Sebastián if it was possible to get some additional hands to help with instructional assistance, as I knew I would need some help, but told me he didn’t think we needed it. He explained that I was quite popular in Mexico due to my older PROJEKT 9 video, but was sure we would still have a smaller crowd, as results would show from previous workshops. Nonetheless, I took his word for it.
I felt compelled to reach out to Thamara, who had shown Joey and me around the city the year before. It wasn’t anything romantic then, as we only enjoyed some training, and hardly spoke in person, as she believed her English to be less than adequate; but something drew me to her. I flew out a few days later, and sure enough, she was there to pick me up at the airport.
It was an early start as we headed for Urban House, a local training space run by Abraham Gil, where we would be picking up the equipment for the event. When we arrived, the scaffolding hadn’t been torn down like it was supposed to be, and we spent the next hours, tearing down. With a late start, we hurried to the event with Seb, and I crammed into the back of a dark trailer, releasing our anxiety through an exchange of comedic nonsense. We pretended that we had been kidnapped and joked about our future demise.
Upon arriving, our newfound composure was lost as somewhere near 400 eager practitioners, Thamara included, stand where fewer than 100 were supposed to be. What I had hoped would be a small audience to share the story, ended up involving far more people than at most national jams in the United States.
After introductions and an opening ceremony on behalf of the organization, we moved to a shaded area for a meditation and visualization session. As beneficial as I believe meditating and visualization within a training process to be, it was more of a way to bring people together in a shared space, simply for a moment together, and to hopefully allow for that human connection to occur.
As we finished, I trembled as I picked up my journal and announced that I wanted to conclude our introduction with a story. This is the first time I had told this story honestly and in its entirety to anyone, and to my surprise, as I began to cry, the group joined me. And the beginning of a workshop dedicated to self-discovery started with a sharing of emotions. Other people came forward to tell their unspoken stories as we embraced one another, in what I will remember as one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
I spent the remainder of what I thought would be my time in Mexico, exploring the city, training, and making incredible friends. Also during that time, I began to quickly connect with Thamara in a way that I had never connected with anyone: open communication. I started to share my deepest emotions and ideas with her, as even though we hardly knew each other, those things were safe with her.
A few days before I had intended to leave and move back to New York, I made the most honest decision I had in a long time: not to go because I knew it wasn’t what I needed. I made a call to my former fiancé and told her I decided to spend some more time in Mexico and she was happy that I was somewhere that was creating a better me. Then, I told her that I had met someone. While Thamara and I hadn’t become anything official, I knew that if I wanted to move on from my troubling past, I had to face them myself. She met it with understanding verbally, but I knew this wouldn’t be the case. This was the last day that we spoke to each other, and the day I canceled my return trip to the United States.
Over the coming weeks, Thamara and I grew exponentially closer as we held stimulating conversations, went on adventures, tried new things, played random games, and shared our love for movement, something she also kept a very intimate connection with. But I would leave soon and decided to treat her to a nice dinner at Thai Gardens Polanco before that. During our meal, she told me that she would miss me and wished I could stay longer. I would also miss her birthday, which happened to be one month from the day. So I made a promise to her that night: I would return the following month to celebrate her birthday with her.
Promises have always held a particular weight for me. If I was willing to promise something, I had to do it. And I did just that. But when I returned, a second promise was made: Mexico would be my home.
I felt that I needed to immerse myself in the community that gave me the tools I needed to recover and also to be with someone who I connected with so deeply. A few long months later in August of 2015, I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico with just enough money in my pocket and armed with enough Spanish language to survive. I left my career in parkour, as I knew it then, and the life I knew here behind to plunge into something entirely new in search of self-discovery and recovery. Little did I know I would be doing much more recovering but not in the way I had anticipated.
Two weeks after I moved I got into a disagreement with Thamara. It wasn’t anything serious, but because I was just learning to deal with emotional conflict and still had a ton of baggage to sort, all of it was difficult. So I decided to meet with my good friend Andrey Pishalnikov, to get out and move a bit. I knew that I shouldn’t be training this day or at least nothing I considered training. Nothing fear-based and nothing challenging. I knew I wasn’t in the correct mental space for it. I just planned for some enjoyable and mindful moving to help bring me to a better place to think.
It had been awhile since I had seen Andrey and even longer since we’ve jumped together. My Uber driver dropped me off at Centro Medico but in an unfamiliar place which took me some time to find the park. When I arrived, Andrey and some others were already in the park jumping. I was glad to be there but was not in a place to move, as I was still quite annoyed. Regardless, I was already here and had no intention of merely sitting around.
Andrey and I moved through the park, moving from challenge to challenge. They were just small technical things, but as I became engrossed in the movement, my mood started to lighten a little. We headed towards the concrete spot at the entrance of the park but stopped on the way to make some portraits of Andrey. I sat down before resuming to message Thamara and let her know that I felt better and would come to meet her after class. And because I was feeling a good bit better, I started moving around much more.
Then I spotted a jump I hadn’t seen before. It was a 16-foot running precision and was just a tad shorter than one near my house that I was close to hitting the other day. This one was huge, especially for me mentally as the biggest (consequential) jump I had ever hit and stuck was about 14-feet. But after a test jump, I knew I was entirely capable. Andrey sprinted full-speed, making it on the first try. He said it was huge but knew I jumped further than him and would easily make it. After a few attempts, I made it effortlessly, in a physical sense. I wanted to stick it but, I was putting too much power into my run and takeoff. I was close, so close.
Even though I had done the jump a handful of times, I knew sticking it wasn’t the day for this. It could have waited for another day with others feelings, but I chose now, and I rushed it. I was actively thinking while moving and is something that never works for me. I quickly enter the flow state, that place of hyper-intense focus where everything becomes or feels subconscious, and it is the only place my body feels comfortable and capable of processing fear. However, I was not there. Instead, I was consciously trying to make adjustments to my jump while performing instead of thinking prior and then merely adapting. I have long legs and jump far. So I scaled back but too much. Instead of my original sprint takeoff, I almost jogged into the jump. As I approached, I knew I wasn’t going to make it; I knew I was in error. I landed but barely. However, I engaged my legs in the impact, and both ankles hyper-extended through dorsiflexion, with my right foot touching my shin. I tripped out of the jump, walking it off as nothing had occurred.
We were right next to the hospital, and I should have just gone. Things might have ended differently if I had, but I chose to meet Thamara instead and began to hobble back to Andrey’s car to head for the metro. I had realized the severity of the injury but didn’t want to deal with it alone. Fortunately, I had some voodoo floss and was able to wrap my ankle tight enough to create stability for the time.
I had numerous recurring, low-grade ankle sprains over the years as a child and I’m assuming I didn’t think much of it as they always healed well. I went in for an x-ray and an examination to rule out anything broken. Upon the initial inspection, I was told to be thankful for my fantastic ankle mobility and strength, or I probably would no longer have them. They thought it was a grade-two sprain, a near-full Achilles rupture, and a possible medial malleolus fracture. Fortunately, the x-ray showed no fracture, but they recommended I get an MRI to know for sure the extent of the damage. I never did.
Honestly, I did the minimal my ankle would require for healing. I wore a brace for four weeks, 2 of which weren’t supposed to be weight bearing, and then back to moving. In my mind, this meant my movement training, not mobility rehabilitation, so that’s what I did. If it felt fine on the surface, I would jump, and if not, I did nothing. Physically, I became stagnant again.
It didn’t help that Thamara was also recovering from a significant injury and this put us both in quite unstable places. However, we had each other, and it gave us time to heal physically and emotionally. Fortunately for tour sanity, or lack of, we met a helpful companion. His name was Chompi, short for Chómpiras. Our friends Lucia and Frodo who found our four-legged friend underneath of a car were unable to keep him, so we took him in…and I’m glad we did.
Not long after, a friend offered me a job at a parkour gym outside of the city, which I took as my rent was high and I was running out of money. Part of me is glad I took it: I made some incredible friends along the way and learned how to deal consciously with things that I didn’t enjoy. But the logical, yet unsettled me wished that I hadn’t taken the offer. I should have stayed away from parkour, focused on my rehabilitation, and found another way.
My time there was a significant factor in the downward spiral that followed over the course of the following months. I began to fall into a deep depression as my injury wasn’t getting any better and working within a space where I wanted to be moving wasn’t helpful. I put in a minimal effort, both in my teaching and within the workplace from the very start. I tried, but I felt it forced. I felt my 13-years of movement training and the decade I spent teaching were not being put to any worthwhile use. On top of that, the daily commute was equal to the four hours I spent working. But I wasn’t teaching: it was glorified babysitting. The majority of my students didn’t care to learn; they were there because their parents put them there, and I tried my best to provide them something useful, or at least enjoyable but grew tired. Thankfully, I had a few, who were extremely dedicated and cared about what I had to offer. They also understood that I wasn’t in the best place and respected that. During that hour, they were my lifeline. So if you’re reading this, thank you.
Finally, I went to see an excellent physiotherapist, who informed me that the severe injury that occurred had become much worse. I was suffering from severe fibrosis. My joint had accumulated an enormous amount of callous scar-tissue, but he thought with the right amount of work, I could be better again. I was given heavy steroidal injections, an osteoporosis medication, and vitamin injections to supplement the massage, ultrasound, laser, EMS, and BIOPTRON light therapy I was receiving. While it was creating noticeable change, I didn’t have the funds to continue regularly.
Only wanting to move and enjoy the incredible community around me, I fell into a terrible depression. I became distant, irritable, and continuously confused. As I began to slip into another thoughtless state as before, Thamara was there to provide a mental balance. She has a brilliant mind, one filled with questions about the self, and a drive for personal growth. Even though my mind was continually questioning, it was on grandiose concepts of existence or human nature, and I rarely implemented anything into my being.
I was on the second bus coming from work on my way home one day, a few minutes from my house, when I lost myself entirely. Everything became meaningless; I wasn’t sure what I was doing here, or why I was even existing. These emotions just continued to fill my mind like an unstoppable itch. I felt like I was wasting away while a large piece of me was missing. I felt stagnant like the world was revolving around me in progress, but I was frozen. Day in and day out, the same thing, repetition, a continuation of the same day, over and over and over and over and over. A voice, screaming at me from inside to walk out of the speeding bus. I wouldn’t die though, even as fast as we were going, I knew I wouldn’t die. I would just plunge myself into further grief. But I knew I didn’t want to die either, so I clasped the metal pole in front of me and began to think of Thamara and Chompi until I reached my stop. The moment I stepped off of the bus, I began to cry profusely. I knew I needed to leave and I wasn’t sure of why. But I could feel it: this internal conflict that continued to pull me apart. And when Thamara arrived home from work, I told her everything. All I knew is that I needed to leave, I just wasn’t sure of how or when.
How could I just leave this person that I loved and the family that I found self in without knowing why I was going? I didn’t want to go, but I felt I couldn’t stay. It wasn’t her, nor us, not Mexico, not my friends; it was just this feeling. The feeling grew so heavy that I had to make a decision. I chose to go. Something was amiss, and it’s not that I couldn’t find it there, but because of my deteriorating mental state, I couldn’t see it.
In search of new experiences that may help me find what I was searching for, we made an adventure of it. Thamara, Chompi, and I were joined by my good friends Christian Greene and Jonny Hart. With my things packed, we ventured across the beautiful Mexican landscape in shared rides and buses. Our experience together was filled with the full spectrum of emotion. We shared some incredible adventures, tried new things, and saw new places. But I knew it would only last until we reached Aguascalientes.
Christian had just left for Denver, and Thamara and I were soon to part ways. It was the hardest farewell. She was my best friend, and I didn’t want to lose her, or the love that we shared. We reminisced about past experiences and played a game as we cried together. I knew at this moment that I truly loved her and I was walking away from it or at least for now. I promised her that I would find what I was looking for so that her generosity and understanding wouldn’t be some meaningless sacrifice. I wasn’t sure of what our future would hold or where I was going. Nonetheless, Jonny and I ventured onward toward the border.
The rest of what came from these adventures can wait for another time, and although significant in my journey, I would like to give them the attention and thought they deserve first; something that Thamara had always stressed the importance of. I began to travel again, keeping my promise to Thamara that I would find what I set out for. The important thing is that I began to heal. I started to take care of my injury, and to connect with others again. I was putting myself in positions to create actionable steps for change within my life and started a conscious effort to understand my emotional self and my needs as a human. And while I have just begun this journey, and don’t know where life will lead me, I know that I’ll find it. Unlike all of my previous attempts, I won’t do it alone. That is the lesson Mexico provided: love is the most powerful guide.
Almost two years of intricate details – the lively, lovely, maddening, problematic, and blissfulness that was my existence – was left out. There is so much to tell, but particularities that I believe needed to see the light of day. Hopefully, this will connect with someone else who is in a similar space.
In the end, this is a thank you: To the community who passed me a spark; To those who have accepted me as their blood; To the girl who found my red balloon floating in the wind, kept it safe, and affected my life more than any other. I love you all. This is for you.
Video © Andrew Obenreder