Athlete, coach and general badass Brandee Laird is an inspiration to athletes around the world, having been a pioneer in the discipline for more than a decade. Andy Day sat down with her to record an interview, pick her brains, and ask how you go from being a commercial fisherwoman to an internationally renowned parkour coach.
What do you do and how did you get here?
I’m a world-class parkour coach. *laughs*. Most of my career has been with Parkour Visions, a non-profit in Seattle that we created in 2007 with a small group of friends. My initial role there was as coach and a creative mind — and almost as a mascot because I was definitely bringing a lot of energy. Before we had gyms, we’d take turns to lead warm-ups and you’d take your role that way. It’s hard to go back and see how I became me.
Like many leaders, I fought against it for a bit as it meant stepping out in front of everybody, telling them what to do, and taking responsibility. I fully believe that being a leader, both for my local community and for the world, means I have to hold myself to as high an integrity standard as I would for anybody else. Maybe more so.
You’re one of very few community leaders that is not the stereotype of a parkour practitioner.
Right. I’m pretty different that way. Yeah, I don’t know. That was just the random kismet of the time.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a result?
I do now. When I first stepped into those roles, I was pursuing who I am.
Here’s the thing. When I learn something and I love it, I just want anybody else who could possibly learn or love it just to get that. I want to get it closer to them.
As I started coaching, I started getting feedback — “Wow, it’s so nice to see a strong woman role model.” “Wow, it’s so cool cos most of the parkour people are young Caucasian males and you are not that.“ “Wow, it’s so nice that you could just step into yourself this way.” And over time I basically I had to accept that that was the case. I don’t think I do too much on purpose to really live into that. Certain things I’ll do just cos I know it helps other people, like having an Instagram for example, or giving interviews to Skochy.
I don’t like competitions but I used to make a point to try them out every so often. I went to the first Apex International. I wasn’t invited so I had to qualify. I got really ill and I ended up doing every single event and then I disqualified myself. I was exhausted but it was amazing how many women came up to me afterwards saying “It was so cool seeing you out there, I’m gonna try it next year, I’m gonna do this.”
To me that was insane cos there I was thinking that I was shit and just so tired, not really giving my level. That didn’t matter for them. It was just the representation. And because of that, I’ve found myself encouraging women to do the same. There are so many women who are amazing, of all ages and from all sorts of different backgrounds. I say, “Start filming your training.” And they say “but I’m terrible” — but that’s not what it’s about. People need to see people who are like themselves to help them get into it.
When I WAS TEACHING WITH you at gerlev, i noticed that every day your hair got a little bit bigger. was that intentional?
It is intentional because the “freedom hair” is very animated. It’s interesting to look at. It’s a passive tactic to get more people to focus on my face and what I’m saying to them. It’s also nice because if I’m feeling less energetic, it’s easier to keep people engaged with some floofy hair.
Do you become someone else when you are teaching?
My teaching persona is always conscious for me. It’s not a character necessarily — more a facet of who I am already.
Coaching is definitely a performance. My mom tells this story of when I was three years old in a touristic part of Seattle. I stood up on some logs and said to anyone that would listen, “Alright everybody, I’m a star and you are my audience.” I remember distinctly being a kid and wanting to be an actress, and that was my goal: to be an actress and a ninja. But I discovered that I couldn’t really act—
But you could be a ninja?
—yeah! I definitely have a charismatic and expressive part of my personality and I’ve always wanted to tell the world something. It’s hard to pinpoint what that something is. That’s what makes it easy because I believe in the transformative properties of what we do.
When I teach coaches, the first thing I ask them is “What are your values and who is your persona? Who do you want to be for these people?” For me it comes from this idea of who I would have always wanted for myself. I’d want someone who is strong and energetic — someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously but can absolutely do the work. I live into this ideal of who I want to be, most especially when I’m in front of people, because it’s easier to do it when people are watching you as there’s the obligation to do better.
I have a much easier time teaching groups than one-on-ones, and my one-on-one persona is a lot more reserved and requires less energy. The more people that are in the session, the more that I have to generate myself so that I can connect with as many of them as possible. I pull out all the energy to blast it out to see how many it catches. Over the years it’s become more ridiculous as I get more comfortable and as people know what I’m about.
But you’re definitely not an extrovert.
I would never describe myself as an extrovert. Not even close. A lot of people think that they can’t step in front of other people. I’m extremely introverted but the thing about my coaching persona is that you could never tell.
One thing that I’ve consciously built over the years is that whenever I’m in front of students or acting in an official capacity, no-one should be able to tell if I’m upset, sad, tired, hungry. Of course there are still those days when I have to say “Guys, I’m working on it.” I don’t want people to have to see that because it’s not conducive to keeping energy in a situation. Because I’m so effective at generating and expending energy, I have to make a conscious effort to then recharge myself. That can be a single moment, or just walking from one spot to another and not having a conversation with somebody.
You’re not one for pushing the idea of ‘go big or go home’.
I guess what I would say is that you don’t always have to suffer. Definitely suffering has to happen in this discipline, especially if you’re younger and you’re just getting into it. You have a capacity to come back from super gnarly training and there’s all kinds of things to be found from within yourself as result of going through those circumstances.
That’s fine but I also want to be 80 years old and still getting up and down walls and balancing on a bar. If I don’t start training like that now, how can I possibly make it to 80 years old and do that?
I have taken “to be and to last” to heart and I’ve always wanted that to be my practice. I’m not practising for today, or for the video, or for tomorrow; I’m practising for forever. I also don’t heal that fast so it’s pretty easy to overtrain. In a way, my body itself has also determined what my practice is like, which also comes out in my coaching and my experience of what I’m giving to people. There’s no need to always be macho.
The “go big or go home” mentality comes from what people have picked out to be the sexiest parts of parkour and that’s not a complete practice for me. I fully believe that you can be practising parkour and not jump at all. Most people will think that’s crazy — “How can I do parkour without jumping? That’s not a thing.” Well, yes, it is.
For me, a coach is meant to be someone who gets students comfortable enough to make themselves uncomfortable. It’s not my place to push you. It’s my place to put you in a place where you can push yourself. That’s also what I do for myself. I need to create a state where I’m safe to make myself uncomfortable. Not for any other reason but that I want to.
What is your parkour practice?
I want to be a jungle cat. I want to move like a black panther, so everything I do is to bring me closer to this idea of being able to move like a feline.
How do you perceive your impact on the parkour community and how has it changed you?
I’m not sure that my identity has changed but my perception of my identity has shifted — I’m now seeing myself as this female figure that has the potential to change lives. Compared to three years ago, I have more self-awareness and I’m more accepting of feedback.
People tell me “You’re so awesome” but I’m just doing what I think is best for me. And how exhausting for my friends and for people who tell me that I’m amazing for me to then say “No I’m not, oh stop.” Not only is that tiring for them but it’s also really disrespectful. If everyone is telling me that I’m a great coach and I then say that they’re wrong, I’m basically giving them the middle finger. You’ve got to stop doing that. One of the strongest things for me is accepting that I’m just a badass parkour coach. It’s hard being great.
You spent a few seasons as a commercial fisherman. That must be hard work
The physical work was rough but the first season was horrible emotionally more than anything else. I ended up working with some guys who hated me for everything I am, what I represented, and who they thought I was. One of the guys had spent a couple of tours in Iraq and kept saying how much he wanted to go back over and kill more people. He would literally threaten to kill me every day. He had PTSD and would wake up each night punching the ceiling screaming “No! No!” and you’d have to remind him “You’re on the boat, you’re on the boat.“ He and the other crew member told me every day that I wouldn’t cut it and that I wasn’t going to make it to the end of the season.
I can smile about it now because it’s funny to think about that time. I definitely refined my practice. The I Ching came in really handy for that. If there’s anything that would be considered a religious text for me, it’s the I Ching. It asks you to consider and to have tolerance and patience.
I ended up hurting my back that same season. I thought I would never be able to touch my toes again. I have never felt that much pain.
It was hard feeling very isolated and realising that the people I thought were going to work hard with me weren’t doing that. I was living and working in such dangerous conditions with people that I didn’t trust. It was very strenuous.
The best part of this story is that both of those guys quit. At the end of the season, it was just me doing the job of three people — just me and skipper on the boat. My back was messed up but it was nice to be the last man standing.
How do you see Skochy as a brand in relation to the broader parkour community?
Skochypstiks is what I consider a home-grown brand. With something as fascinating and rapidly-growing as parkour, it could be very easy for the right business or entrepreneur to slide in and monetize our desire for clothing that is comfortable, utilitarian, and looks cool.
Instead of approaching the brand from a standpoint of making as much money as possible off of our sub-culture, Skochy has instead built the brand from within our community. Not only are the decisions based on experience from those who practise, but Skochy is also a leader in supporting our events and athletes. For a while I wondered how they could possibly be making any money with how much stuff they give away! Most importantly, Skochypstiks started and continues to create products that are relevant to us and what we want. With Skochy, our opinions actually matter.
If you could get Skochy to make one thing, what would it be?
I need Skochy to make a full catsuit. I’m talking a skin-tight, Marvel-movie-hero style one piece that I can confidently patrol the city streets in…
Barring that? I’d love to see a hoodie based around the old “Iron Longsleeves” design with “combat shirt” additions such as upper arm zippered pockets and a hook-and-loop field for the eventual skochy patches (which should have been a thing forever ago.) Like this but better because Skochy. It would have an integrated tube-scarf that can be pulled up over the mouth and nose, and have reinforcements in the elbows, wrist cuffs, and the trapezius area where backpack straps sit.