Mejía Bars: promoting calisthenics in Quito

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There was one last crowd before the state-wide curfew emptied Quito’s streets for months. On Monday, March 16, the country, like many places in the world, entered an unprecedented state of emergency due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Everyone knew a pandemic was ‘in the air’, but days before the authorities imposed the lockdown (even the night before), nobody could imagine how deeply this new reality would affect everyday life. That was especially true for the young attendees at HIIT Club, located on the premises of Atahualpa Olympic Stadium, on Saturday 14, where Quito’s most important calisthenics tournament took place.

No one was required to wear masks, no one took your temperature at the door or smothered your hands in alcohol; social distancing wasn’t a thing yet (all these have become painstaking realities since that day forward). Mejía Bars Cup continued as expected. The event’s winner would be representing Ecuador in an international competition in Mexico, to be held in the upcoming months… which sounded great for a discipline that has only just begun to take form in the country.

Samuel Reascos trains at Mejía Bars in Quito (the photos for this article are courtesy of Udit Kharka).

Calisthenics was born in France in the late-19th century and for those who’ve never heard of it, perhaps a reference could be Olympic gymnastics. Especially the bars segment of the competition. There are key differences, no doubt, given that calisthenics has, for much of its history, been more of a training method than a sport. Gymnastics, in contrast, has existed since Ancient Greece and has been an Olympic sport since Athens 1896. Only in recent years have winners, qualifying stages, judges, international tournaments, and standardized rules, become a thing.

In Greek, the words Kalis and Thanos mean ‘strength’ and ‘beauty’ (respectively) and one can understand why these exercises inspire such ideas. Today, however, the discipline born back in post-Napoleonic France has turned into a modern urban activity. Known colloquially as ‘Street Workout’, the young athletes who practice and embrace it identify themselves with city life. Namely, they train in public parks… or anywhere that metal bars can be found.

We recently connected with Jhosué Vázquez, co-founder of Mejía Bars Quito, and walked La Carolina Park as pandemic-related restrictions have begun to ease. We spoke of the state of calisthenics in the country. “Things are just beginning,” he told us as he showed off some of his moves on the metal bars of a stairway we came upon.

Bars are certainly the prime canvas upon which these athletes showcase the possibilities of human musculature, through dynamic and static exercises that magnetize us as we watch. Jhosué isn’t only a strong kid, but his movements feel like corporal poetry: a dance that is not dance, and a workout that is much more than just a workout.

The Mejía Bars Cup

So let’s rewind to mid-February, to Mejía Bars, the burgeoning focal point for calisthenics in Ecuador: literally, an empty backlot of Quito’s emblematic Colegio Mejía. The institution has done little to encourage the boys who’ve set up here. Rather, support has been up to the alumni, who have shown interest in those who manage and use the space.

Graffiti-painted walls. Poles soaring high in the sky. Fourteen, fifteen, twenty-year-old young adults who, with their bare hands, climb, twist, gyrate in the air, and hang above a structure motionless as they flex their pecs. Samuel Reascos; Lincoln Manobanda; Jhosué himself, sidelined due to an injury. This happens to many of the best performers, as they demand the most from their bodies in a discipline that still lacks professional status. There’s no medical follow-up for recovery, no protocols to heed for injury prevention. But as striking as their abilities are, it’s perhaps their dedication and love for the project that stands out, the vision and drive to make this budding sport grow, albeit the utter lack of visibility and support it receives.

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Victor Allendes, Street Workout Champion, shows off his skills the day before the event.

“This year we managed to bring Victor Allendes,” explains Jhosué, “Can you imagine that? The Street Workout Champion Victor Allendes! We brought him down here to be part of our jury during the Mejía Bars Cup.” There’s nostalgia in his voice, not only for the event he organized in March but for a pre-pandemic world in which his ‘new sport’ began reaching for new heights: “Having someone of that caliber here was a real luxury. And he helped us choose the winner. It felt official. We knew that someone like that would be big for calisthenics in Quito, and in Ecuador in general”.

For Jhosué, it was all about making the Mejía Bars Cup a success. Sure, competition is tough and while Mejía Bars enjoy a reputation promoting calisthenics in Quito today, producing a winner is harder than it sounds. The team brought its best competitors. But the most promising, Lincoln Manobanda, a Mejía Bars co-founder, came short of qualifying to the final round. In the end, Erick Palacios from Iron Soul Club (based in Los Chillos) took the trophy and will be competing in Mexico. Of course, the pandemic postponed that event, but Ecuador, at least, was able to eke out its star competitor before the world came to a halt.

Fotos: Udit Kharka

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