Jesse Villarreal of Westbrook was one of those kids who seldom took the easy route anywhere.

He didn’t go around obstacles — trees, walls, boulders — but instead liked to figure out ways to go right over, under or through them.

So he was thrilled, while a student at Deering High School in Portland, to find out that what he likes to do is a sport. Developed in France, it’s known as parkour, or free running.

“He was climbing buildings and trees all through Portland. He got a lot of attention from tourists and locals,” said his mother, Bobbi Jo Fuller.

Villarreal was even more thrilled to find out recently there was a reality TV show, “American Ninja Warrior,” which not only allowed parkour enthusiasts to compete on action-packed obstacle courses, but also rewarded the best free runner with a $500,000 prize.

So Villarreal qualified for the show, and went to Miami earlier this year to compete. He’ll appear on the show’s upcoming episodes, airing tonight and Monday on the G4 cable network and NBC, which are jointly owned.

Villarreal, 24, said Friday he can’t say how far he got on the show, which has already been taped and airs through late July, so folks will just have to tune in to see how far his passion for free running got him.

“The highlight for me was getting to meet others who do this, seeing what they’re capable of, and having what we all like to do recognized,” said Villarreal, who works as a painter, but is contemplating police work.

If he makes it past Monday’s show — which is a regional qualifying event — he will move on to the finals in Las Vegas, where 100 people compete for $500,000.

The finals will begin airing July 8. Other episodes airing before that will be footage of the five other regional qualifying rounds.

NBC’s website describes the show as a “heart-racing and action-packed obstacle course competition,” with some 125 people competing in each regional competition, to get down to the 100 finalists. Competitors are not professional athletes, but include everyone from “firemen to police officers to social workers,” according to NBC. The show is based on the Japanese show “Sasuke.”

Some of the obstacles on the American version have included carrying bricks across a beach while tethered by springy cords, carrying barrels over logs and hopping through tires.

Villarreal ran track and cross country while at Deering High School. He said his passion for free running pushes him to stay agile and mentally sharp.

To train, he often climbs walls and statues in downtown Portland, or rocks and old fortifications at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth.

Even though the show has “warrior” in the title, there is no combat, Villarreal said. It’s all about conquering physical obstacles, which is Villarreal’s favorite sport.

“It’s great for keeping your mind and body fit, because you’re running and jumping and thinking all the time,” said Villarreal.



“American Ninja Warrior”

WHAT: Reality TV show where people compete on an obstacle course for a grand prize of $500,000. Jesse Villarreal of Westbrook is a contestant on this season’s edition.

WHEN: 9-11 p.m. today and 9-10 p.m. Monday

WHERE: G4 (Time Warner Cable Channel 102 in Greater Portland) today(Sunday), and NBC (WCSH-TV Channel 6) on Monday

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