Erica Madrid, of Boulder, practices her parkour skills on Wednesday at the Apex Movement Gym on Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. For a video of Madrid
Erica Madrid, of Boulder, practices her parkour skills on Wednesday at the Apex Movement Gym on Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. For a video of Madrid practicing go to www.coloradodaily.com. (JEREMY PAPASSO)

E ven after establishing herself as one of the top freerunners and parkour athletes in the world, Boulder's Erica Madrid still gets scared.

She chalked her hands nervously on Wednesday afternoon at Apex Movement in Boulder as she prepared to complete her signature move, "The Madrid."

"This is a solid mat, right?" she said motioning to the thick blue mat below her feet before jumping up to grasp a horizontal black pipe eight feet off the ground.

She swung back and forth to gather momentum before flipping once and grabbing another pipe behind her.

"My adrenaline," she said, laughing, after jumping back down to solid ground, putting her hand on her chest to feel her heartbeat.

Madrid recently returned from the 2012 Red Bull Art of Motion competition on Santorini, Greece, a parkour competition featuring the best in the world. She was one of three females invited to the competition and one of 21 total competitors from 10 countries.

Now 21, Madrid picked up parkour at age 18 after stints in gymnastics and skateboarding.

Parkour is a loose umbrella term that describes the art of movement, or training the body and mind to overcome obstacles. Athletes often use the term freerunning interchangeably with parkour, though Madrid says freerunning encompasses the more creative sides of the sport--break dancing, gymnastics, "b-boying" and more.


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Though she's been perfecting the tricks, jumps, flips and twists that comprise parkour, she admitted that still being scared is often what motivates her.

Her friend and Apex Movement founder Ryan Ford agreed, adding that fear is just a part of the sport.

"That's the point of what we do," Ford said. "Scare yourself at least once everyday, that's what I say."

Though she didn't place in the top eight at the Red Bull Art of Motion competition, she and Ford had a blast traveling around Europe, doing handstands at the Parthenon and other parkour moves at international landmarks.

Madrid competed in gymnastics until she reached a breaking point in high school, when she no longer wanted to balance the hours of training at the gym with homework and little sleep. She began showing up at the skate park every day after school instead, but it didn't replace the full-body workout she got from gymnastics.

She discovered Apex Movement and reveled in the freedom parkour gave her during open gym. Ford approached her, and asked her to start coming to more classes.

As a gymnast, she was forced to perfect the same skills as everyone else, and complete them perfectly in competition.

"Freerunning is so much more open-minded and creative," she said. "You can literally do anything you want. There's always room to make something else up or improve. In parkour and freerunning there is no right and wrong. Even if you mess up there's always a way to recover."

Her mom, Karen Smith, was only slightly surprised when her daughter approached her about taking up parkour and freerunning.

As she watched Madrid take up both skateboarding and parkour, traditionally male-dominated sports, Smith said she was amazed by her daughter's drive to succeed at the same level as her male competitors and friends.

"She never wanted to be awesome for a girl," Smith said from her home in Aurora. "She wanted to be as good as the guys."

Madrid doesn't feel any pressure from being a trailblazer for women in her sport. As she stood among the pipes, boxes, platforms and mats at the gym, she talked excitedly about how she's carving her own path. With no one ahead of her setting records or creating standards, Madrid is leading the charge for female freerunners worldwide.

"There's a freedom to it," she said. "You don't get stuck following everyone else. It forces you to be creative and do things your own way."

--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.