LA Weekly declared Luci 'Steel' Romberg the "queen of freerunning."
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Romberg, who 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.
"A 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.
Raised by die-hard tennis-player parents in Colorado, Romberg 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.
With her body constantly in the spotlight feelings of inadequacy snuck in.
"I 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 says.
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.
"Freerunning 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."
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.
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.
"Everybody 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."
Beautiful, 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 build self-confidence."
Romberg considers herself "lucky" to have found her panacea.
"Freerunning 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."
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