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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
she also hones her craft outside, where the sport was conceived.
“Anyplace with a staircase and a handrail, I can spend hours at,” she
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
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.
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.”
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
Romberg considers herself “lucky” to have found her panacea.
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.”