One of the world’s best free runners, Tim Shieff, talks to Viva! founder, Juliet Gellatley about his passion for veganism, self-awareness and breaking boundaries
My jaw dropped when I first saw Tim Shieff. This cool guy in his 20’s leapt out of the seat of a moving car, did a handstand on the driver’s door, performed a backspin on the roof then flipped back in and drove off – like that’s a normal part of anyone’s drive to work. I wish!
I met Tim in his East London flat that nestles in the sky, with a dizzying, spectacular view. He has striking pale blue eyes and speaks in a calm, thoughtful manner but allows passion to break through for his beliefs. He’s an extremely affable, relaxed and warm guy – bubbling with optimism for the future of veganism and its positive impact on our planet.
Also known as Livewire, Tim is celebrated globally for his incredible free running or parkour. If you don’t know what that is think Spider Man without the costume or web. He is a gymnast-runner-rock climber break dancer who uses the seemingly mundane in the urban world as his props. He leaps across sky scraper roofs, vaults tube station barriers, back flips down escalators and makes short shrift of metalspeared bars meant to keep you from climbing a wall 100 feet high. His agility and strength are mesmerising. He can hold himself perpendicular from whatever is available – the iron struts of Manhattan bridge, perhaps.
Many of the films he has made for YouTube have notched up viewing figures in the hundreds of thousands, some as many as five million. He won the 2009 Barclaycard World Freerun Championship and 2011 Best Art in Motion, and in 2015 entered ITV’s Ninja Warrior UK and was the only person to complete the second course in the final, viewed by four million. He was also captain of Ninja Warrior’s Team Europe in a ‘USA versus the world’ special in 2014 – and led them to victory.
He was brought up as a meat eater and turned vegan three years ago after reading a book by Ekhart Tolle, A New Earth.
He told me: “I learnt a lot about myself and the ego. It made me more open minded so that when I watched a film called The Best Speech you will ever Hear, by animal rights activist, Gary Yourofsky, I could not deny what he said. That meant I had to go vegan! “I had always been against animal cruelty and I felt bad if I accidentally trod on a snail but then I’d go inside and make a chicken sandwich. I was disconnected. Gary’s speech pointed out that I was supporting cruelty, exploitation and torture by eating animals – and it was unnecessary. For me to ignore that would have meant me not living my own truth.
“I recently made a YouTube film when I’d just finished tidying up this flat, saying how nice it would be to have someone else do the cleaning and cooking – even better if I didn’t have to pay them. But that would mean someone’s whole existence being to serve me. Similarly, if I ever thought about eating meat again, another being would be involved. Slavery was wrong therefore so is meat eating – we just don’t need it. But we lie to ourselves because we’re addicted. We enslave animals for meat and dairy; we kill male chicks; we kill babies – lambs are babies! What are we doing? When you go vegan you see the truth.”
Tim is not a ‘celebrity athlete’ who happens to be vegan; it is central to his being. I admire the way he is using his status to educate people – and especially teenage boys and young men, who aren’t the easiest to engage with. This matters to him because eating animals is fundamentally immoral. Tim explains: “Choosing to take a life against the free will of that being is unethical. It’s not about survival anymore and this is a spiritual (not religious) journey for me.
"Veganism isn’t the sole message, mindfulness is, but veganism is the biggest chapter in the spiritual awakening that’s going on. People want world peace and yet harm animals – it’s all interlinked."
“When our society wilfully allows animals to be treated badly then it isn’t a far step to treating humans the same way. When society is civil to animals, we will also be civil to each other. To me, ending speciesism is the root to world peace and the third step in the trilogy of black rights, women’s rights and animal rights. Established religions have had their time and we now need to embrace life, not destroy it.” Does this offer Tim hope?
“Change will happen quickly over the next few decades and veganism will become the norm. Justice can only be denied so long before everyone is aware of it.”
Free running seems a macho world – cool young men in joggers and scruffy tees. Yet dig a little and you find them refreshingly respectful of people, animals and the environment.
Its origins were influenced by a volcano blowing its top on the Caribbean island of Martinique. French naval officer, Lt. George Hebert, valiantly organised the rescue of over 700 people and watching them stumble around obstacles had a profound impact on him. He decided that to be of real value, athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism, Etre fort pour être utile. Be strong to be useful.
Hebert created a physical training discipline he called ‘the natural method’ using climbing, running and man-made obstacle courses to recreate the natural environment. It became the basis for all French military training – parcours du combatant, the path of the warrior. Years later, Raymond Belle, a former soldier in the French Special Forces, showed his son, David, this training method and Hebert’s writings.
It was David Belle who merged them with gymnastics and martial arts in the 1980s and parkour was born. Parkour is as much about mental discipline as physical, to overcome obstacles in any aspect of life, underlined by David Belle’s philosophy of altruism, useful strength, longevity, self-improvement and self-understanding.
“Free running taught me a lot about myself physically, how to listen to my body and treat it with care and respect, whilst still experimenting and retaining the joy of spontaneity. It also taught me how powerful our minds are,” says Tim.
“When I’m free running, there’s a part of me that is afraid and a part that knows I’m fine. That ‘faith over fear’ gives you a self confidence that carries into others parts of your life. When you understand and respect your body it has a massively positive affect on your mind.” As well as influencing young people to become vegan for the animals, Tim is an awesome role model for vegan health!
“It is great that I can influence people watching free running on YouTube and shows like Ninja Warrior. Thousands then watch my vegan films and I talk about how changing my diet made me a lot healthier.
“I have no desire to win, I just enjoy every day – the feeling of being in the moment. You have to be otherwise it would be dangerous!”
I ask him what he thinks about when he leaps from roof to roof: “Nothing. That’s the beauty of it. People meditate for years to get there! “I practise and overcome things and this attitude permeates my life. I train two to six hours a day and do yoga, long distance running, rock climbing, gymnastics and parkour as I’m trying to be a well-rounded athlete, not to be the best in the world at one thing, but flexible and strong and comfortable within my body.”
I wondered what Tim eats. He’d make any chimpanzee proud – eight (yes, eight) bananas in his smoothie for breakfast! “I do eat more calories but they’re in healthy foods so I’m lean and strong. I don’t have a specific nutrition plan but eat whole foods and with a range of colours, it’s as simple as that.
No other animal has the level of scientific knowledge we have, they don’t follow a ‘protein plan’ yet they’re healthier than us! We have research and data yet where has it got us? Fuckin’ nowhere! We are the unhealthiest species on the planet. I feel healthier than ever so surely that says something!”
“The way animals are farmed is preposterous. Pigs are more intelligent than dogs and we know how playful they are, how important it is to take dogs for a walk. Yet we keep pigs in crates or filthy, barren pens. It is almost unbearable for me to acknowledge this. We are blessed to live in a world of opportunity and choice – yet we take it away from other living beings. How selfish is that?”
But Tim ends on a typically positive note: “People are changing – we all make a difference when we vote with our pound. What we buy is more important than our political vote. Voting daily against animal agriculture – that’s how we make real change.”