Luci Romberg Is the Queen of Freerunning, an Extreme Sport That's Like Running But More Awesome
|Luci Romberg soars.|
Luci Romberg is practicing corkscrews over a blue gymnastics mat on a sweltering day. Most of the other 16 members of Team Tempest are here at the gym, too, also rehearsing methods of launching themselves airborne: flipping off ledges, leaping between walls, vaulting off foam blocks. They're rarely all right side up at the same time.
Corks aren't Romberg's best skill. She takes three running steps and launches into a 360-degree sideways twist, limbs taut, ponytail flying. But she doesn't kick off properly and lacks the height to land on her feet. "I suck!" she shouts, even before her hands slam into the mat.
Perfection is elusive in the world of acrobatics; wipeouts happen. But Romberg knows that already. The compact tumbler is a top figure in freerunning -- a grueling, extreme sport that employs gymnastics, speed and eye-popping tricks to traverse urban environments. Developed by Sébastien Foucan in France in the late '90s, freerunning is an offshoot of parkour, adding artistic flourishes to parkour's goal of efficiently getting from here to there.
Imagine: Between here and there are rooftops, flagpoles and a sea of guardrails. Now consider freerunning's philosophy: The landscape is a canvas; your body is the paintbrush.
Romberg, who goes by "Steel," is the only female member of Team Tempest, the L.A.-based athletic collective whose members include some of freerunning's pioneers. She twice competed on Japanese TV phenomenon Sasuke (called Ninja Warrior stateside and elsewhere) after qualifying to represent the United States at G4 TV's American Ninja Challenge in 2008. In 2010, she was the first athlete inducted into the World Acrobatics Society for freerunning -- a milestone for this predominantly male sport.
"A lot of times, I'm the only girl," she says, catching her breath after a running cat leap against a graffiti-covered wall. "But I don't care. I'm not competitive with the guys; I'm competitive with myself. At the end of the day, I just go out there and do my best."
Romberg wasn't always this confident. In fact, she's now gearing up to shoot a short film, Beautiful, about a much different part of her life story.Check out this video to see an example of freerunning
Raised by die-hard tennis-player parents in Colorado, Romberg, who declines to give her age, was tracked early for a life of athletics. She learned to swing a tennis racket at age 3 and started gymnastics lessons at 6. After winning a gymnastics scholarship to Texas Woman's University, she led her team to two national championships.
Romberg was always working out, and the constant spotlight on her body began to take an emotional toll.
"I always felt like I wasn't skinny enough," she says. "Having to be in a leotard in front of thousands of people, you become self-conscious -- you always think you're fat."
Her solution: bulimia. "I tried to starve myself as much as I could, but it was really hard," she recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle. "I'd end up eating a ton and purging." The chaotic bid for perfection mirrored the "chaos inside my head," she says.
After school, she moved to Hollywood and began auditioning for stunt roles. She met a few members of Team Tempest on the set of Clint Eastwood's Changeling and was captivated by the creative freedom of their sport. Nearly five years later, she credits it with saving her health.
"Freerunning was my cure for my eating disorder, for my lack of confidence," she says. "In a traditional sport like gymnastics, there's not much room for individual style. With this, everybody's different. New moves are being invented every day. It's whatever you can create in your mind."
Romberg spends hours each week training at Tempest Freerunning Academy, a cavernous indoor playground in an industrial corner of Northridge. Outfitted with warped walls, balance beams, a maze of horizontal bars and a red springboard floor, the gym is a mecca for thrill-seeking locals and a natural hangout for Romberg and her agile associates.
But she also hones her craft outside, where the sport was conceived. "Anyplace with a staircase and a handrail, I can spend hours at," she says.
At 5 feet tall, Romberg is a blur of sneakers and dirty-blond hair as she flips off ledge after ledge, like a Slinky. After practice runs, she joins the guys in good-natured sibling needling. They all have nicknames: Brian "NoSole" Orosco, Paul "Diddy" Darnell. Fans usually assume Romberg's "Steel" moniker is a reference to her strength, but its true origins are secret. (Let's just say alcohol was involved.)
Freerunning doesn't pay the bills, though. Romberg's day job is still stunt work. She has jumped off buildings, rolled under trucks and crashed bikes in films and TV shows, including Green Lantern, Zombieland and True Blood. On a recent job doubling for Melissa McCarthy, she landed in the ER for the first time, with a gash on her forehead. "I did a car hit, and I hit the ground on my face," she explains with a giggle that suggests a hint of pride.
Her scars -- emblems of "putting myself out there, getting over my fears," she says -- contribute to the kind of nontraditional beauty she hopes to celebrate with her film.
"Everybody knows that our society has a fucked-up impression of what beauty is," she says. "I wanted to talk about not adhering to all the social expectations of what a woman should look like -- it sounds cliché, but really focusing on inner beauty rather than outer beauty."
Beautiful, produced by her brother, stuntman Brady Romberg, and directed by Tempest teammate Victor "Showtime" Lopez, is scheduled for release early next year. Romberg hopes to organize a public screening; the film will later be posted online for free viewing. It will feature all the "cool shit" viewers might expect from an ode to freerunning, she says, but also reach deeper.
"I try to encourage other girls to get involved, like, 'We can do this, too.' [But] I want to inspire people not necessarily to freerun but to find their freerunning -- something they can excel in, that they're passionate about, that they can use to build self-confidence."
Romberg considers herself "lucky" to have found her panacea.
"Freerunning helped me be OK with who I really am," she says. "It opened my eyes to accepting myself, to realizing that I am good enough. I am who I am. And eff you if you don't like me, you know what I mean? I don't care."Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.