How do you go from vaulting school tables in your lunch break to amassing 1.3 million followers on Instagram, sponsorship deals and a spot on a new primetime TV show?
That’s the journey of Dominic Di Tommaso. The Sydneysider started training in parkour, or freerunning, in 2007 – the grassroots sport that first came to popularity in France in the 1980s and has since captured the public imagination through the daredevil, acrobatic feats of its proponents.
Five years in, Di Tommaso (whose nickname is Dom Tomato) began participating in events in Thailand and Europe, becoming a member of the international Team Farang as well as Crew 42 in Australia. When Red Bull came on board as a sponsor he made Hollywood-quality clips, freerunning through scenic parts of Cairo, Bruges and the Swiss Alps.
Now 28, he’s featuring as “Dominator” in Channel Seven’s Ultimate Tag, which started on Sunday night. He and other pro taggers – with backgrounds in parkour, gymnastics, martial arts and more – will chase down civilian contestants vying for a $100,000 prize around different studio courses in an epic version of the schoolyard game of tag.
Not that I challenge Channel Seven’s motives, but with the futuristic set and costumes, Ultimate Tag does seem to nod to the dystopian movies of the 70s and 80s about menacing game shows that were actually designed to entertain the masses into subjugation.
Rollerball, starring James Caan, imagined a national sport created by shadowy corporations to demonstrate the futility of individual effort; in Death Race 2000, a government created a violent road race to pacify the general population, with extra points given to participants – like Sly Stallone – for running over and killing innocent pedestrians.
But Ultimate Tag is most like The Running Man – a game show in which the enemy-of-the-state contestants (including one played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) are hunted down by larger-than-life athletes.
Despite his Dominator moniker, Di Tommaso gave his alter ego an impish arrogance, and he’s nothing but cheerily polite to Hlcarpenter.com Australia. On set, the pro taggers were kept apart from the contestants, he says, and both parties were only given an hour to acquaint themselves with the set.
In that sense, it wasn’t much different to the parkour stunts he puts on the internet, which are usually figured out on the day. “It’s just like being a jazz musician, and riffing with the other guys,” he says. “There’s structure and techniques, but it’s also off the cuff.”
The equation of height plus concrete does of course equal danger, and freerunners (as well as their close cousins, urban climbers and rooftoppers) have on occasion died in their pursuits.
But while Di Tommaso got started copying videos, he says it’s not about showing off by risk taking.
“That’s the common misconception we’re trying to break as a community,” he says. “There is a level of training that is necessary to be doing these feats. You can’t just instantly jump from rail to rail. It’s like any other sport, it takes years and years of foundation and practice and skill, and then building a mental resilience to then do those challenges.”
With parkour having such urban appeal, Di Tommaso has an unexpected sporting background. He was a competitive figure skater as a child, winning the senior national title in the 2010–11 season.
Growing up in Canterbury in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, he felt insecure about not fitting in, “not only because of the sporting choices but also just because of the lack of social awareness and social maturity,” he says. “I was accelerated a grade, so all the people in my year were a year senior to me socially. And because ice skating isn’t very cool, it’s one of those things that definitely ostracised me a bit.”
He credits that sense of discipline – and the fact that he was seeing a sports psychologist from the age of eight – for giving him a strong base to work from once he moved into parkour. After getting to grips with the basic movements and plyometric exercises, he instantly loved the freedom of his new sport – particularly after the rigidity of figure skating. “There was this free terrain to progress in my own time, which was really refreshing,” he says. “That’s definitely why it draws a lot of younger teenagers into the sport – being able to do it without having a coach telling you what to do.”
Once he started his Instagram account he decided to treat parkour like a job, “seven days a week, documenting what I was doing”. He laughs. “But most of my audience is just there to see the big front flips.”
The “fails” videos also garner a lot of likes. Di Tommaso’s stunts include the Lyon 25 – in which he executed a front-flip to span 25 steps, fracturing his foot upon impact. It might sound like he has an underactive amygdala, but Di Tommaso puts his fearlessness down to training – both physical and mental.
“I talk to myself and re-establish my ability,” he explains. “I use logic – if I’ve done something a thousand times on the ground and I don’t fall over, then why would I fall over doing it at a height? But also, genetically, I’ve never been a very fearful person. I don’t have any irrational phobias and I’ve always managed to be in control of any heightened senses and bring them back down.”
While parkour crews such as Storror in the UK (who have clocked up over 720m YouTube views) have broken through to the mainstream and were recruited to work on Netflix movie 6 Underground (starring Ryan Reynolds), Di Tommaso says the past decade has only seen slow growth “We’ve seen a few more freerunning classes or acrobatic classes with parkour mechanics,” he says, “but there’s still not a huge industry.”
On an average day, he and his friends pick a location and film themselves jumping off walls. Then he’ll head home to Crows Nest and edit the videos, to post to YouTube three times a week. They get moved on by building management or security staff only occasionally.
“They quickly understand that we don’t want to cause any problems, we want to exercise,” he says. “We’re not adrenaline junkies or criminals jumping across rooftops; there’s a respect for the space that is entwined into the sport. Parkour is such a healthy lifestyle choice instead of going out to bars and parties. You’re using sunshine and the day to exercise and bend your body.”
Despite his years navigating concrete and steel, Di Tommaso says some of the Ultimate Tag contestants gave him a run for his money. “I was blown away by the people who made it to the final round, the athleticism,” he says. “Even though they hadn’t trained in the sport specifically, they had a physical background and it was mind-blowing to see some of the things they pulled off.”