Friday 16 January 2015

The Bionic Man, Ping Pong's Ultimate Inspiration

A dedicated reader of my blog, Arnab Ghosh was kind enough to send me this interview he did with a truly inspirational character. Navin Kumar has survived 5 major heart surgeries and now survives with a carbon fiber bionic heart and is rediscovering his passion for table tennis. Check out Arnab's blog HERE and enjoy this inspiring tale of a remarkable man.

Tell us a little bit about your condition.

I was born with a congenital heart condition that has required 5 open-heart surgeries throughout my life to correct. My heart is now mechanical and made of the same carbon fiber material that you see in some table tennis paddles and I also have a pacemaker implanted inside me which is cool because occasionally I get to have software downloaded inside me so I feel like my old childhood bionic hero, The Six Million Dollar Man. A year and half ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease which affects me 2 ways – muscle stiffness and right hand tremors.

Navin Kumar Cheerful to be playing the sport he loves!

What do you bring away from each of the five successful heart surgeries that you had to go through since childhood?

Gratefulness for still being alive to enjoy my journey and a strong determination to show my gratitude for being alive by inspiring others to good health via table tennis playing.

You have decided to inspire others to live heart healthy lives. What is ‘heart healthy life’?
How do you think the changes that took place in time from the late 1970s till now have affected people in terms of heart health - To be more exact has it become more important than before to pay attention to one’s heart and why?

Heart-healthy life is exactly just that in terms of definition – living a lifestyle that promotes good heart health via exercise and proper diet. The changes that have taken place since the late 70s until now, specifically in terms of getting awareness out to the general public about the importance of good heart health, have definitely influenced the general public to take better care of their hearts and this is evidenced by healthier eating options at restaurants, increased participation at fitness clubs, and the realization that if people don’t take care of themselves in terms of heart health then they risk possible heart attack or other heart related issues.

Tell us your dad’s playing career in India.

He mostly played in school and with friends. His primary passion when it came to sports was Kabaddi and he was amazing at the game. He was the smallest guy on his team but lightning quick and wound up captaining the Mysore State Team and had there been a National Kabaddi Team back then he would have definitely been on it. I still have copies of all his newspaper articles that talked about his matches and I have some of his medals as well. He has been such an inspiration to me to get better in table tennis since he was my first teacher when I was four years old.

Improvement in table tennis in America since your childhood till now over the years
and peoples attention and knowledge...table tennis’ popularity in general over the years. – What are your thoughts?

Table tennis has definitely increased in popularity over the years and people now realize that table tennis is great for exercise, and with the work and awareness I am doing now, people are starting to realize the great health benefits for table tennis.

Tell us more about your table tennis experience in College.

Primarily recreational experience, though I did manage to win a tournament in college. I had two sporting passions in college – table tennis and pocket billiards (i.e. pool) so when I wasn’t playing table tennis, I was shooting pool and wound up representing my school at a collegiate national tournament for pool.

You won gold in a doubles event. What tournament was that and where? What is the difference in terms of difficulty between singles and doubles matches for you?

This was a doubles table tennis tournament on a Bermuda Cruise Ship. My brother-in-law was my doubles partner. The primary difference between singles and doubles matches is the fact you have a partner in doubles and the difficulty lies in being sure that you and your partner are in sync with one another and can work together.

How exactly did winning change your perspective towards the game?

Winning absolutely had no effect on my perspective towards the game. Win or lose, I love this game and enjoy losing as much as winning because you can take losing in a positive sense and use it as a learning experience to see what you did wrong and what you need more work on so you get better the next time you play.

A lot of the youngsters who are coming in contact and falling in love with table tennis think that table tennis really picked up after the golden era of Sweden, but actually there were a lot of good players before that era. Tell us something about some of your favourites from that time.

Table tennis has been around much longer than the golden era of Sweden, and there were plenty of great players that played during the 1920s to 1940s. My personal favorites include Viktor Barna who was known for his insanely wicked backhand, my dear friend Marty Reisman who sadly passed away a few years ago, Dick Miles, Johnny Leach, and Richard Bergmann to name a few.

Tell us something about Larry Hodges, Jimmy Pelletier and Marty Reisman and their impact on you.

Larry is currently my coach, as well as my older daughter’s coach since she recently started taking group lessons from him. Larry is well known worldwide in the table tennis world and is a great player, not only in the sponge game but the other table tennis games including hardbat and sandpaper. 

His knowledge is vast, having written many articles, books, etc. on the subject and I am totally in love with his strong forehand. He will be focusing on helping me improve my forehand as I start the next phase of coaching from him. Jimmy and Marty both had a strong impact on me in terms of helping me develop a deep love and respect for the sandpaper and hardbat table tennis games, and Jimmy has been great in being my primary hitting partner for sandpaper and hardbat table tennis games which has helped me to improve greatly.

Importance of table tennis in your life.

It is helping to keep me alive and in good health and surprisingly, table tennis has made my reflexes lightning quick compared to how they were before I resumed playing last July. Now that my daughters are learning to play table tennis, this is very important to me because we now share the same passion for this game and it’s a great father-daughter bonding activity.

Larry Hodges and his signature 2000 level clipboard play

Things that make Larry and Jimmy unique in their coaching from one another as far as your limitations are concerned.

Larry has coaching down to a science and has been able to pick apart my game and help me improve my technique, as well as adjust my technique to adapt to my Parkinson’s limitations. Jimmy has taught me much in the same way that the great Marty Reisman taught Jimmy for sandpaper and hardbat playing.

You’ve played all forms of the game, which one is the best and you enjoyed the most?

I love all forms equally. I love the fast speed that the ball moves in the sponge game and I love returning smashes, which has helped me greatly to improve my reflexes and that is the number one compliment I get from opponents regarding how unusually fast my reflexes are so they jokingly call me “the wall” since I return their smashes. I love the long rallies in the hardbat and sandpaper games and love the sound that hardbat and sandpaper paddles make when you hit the ball.

After you were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease you must have found it difficult to continue with the stroke techniques like you did before. How were you able to work around it?

I was able to work around it by good coaching and adjusting my stroke as needed to compensate for the Parkinson's. I also kept an open mind about table tennis blades and rubber and through trial and error I experimented with different blades and rubber to find combinations that would help me compensate for my Parkinson’s.

How did you play in Las Vegas at the US Nationals?

Had a great tournament and went undefeated in my group in which I won all my matches and later lost in the quarterfinals. I was so happy that I made it as far as I did because I proved to myself that I can compete on this level despite my heart and Parkinson’s conditions. I also got observed by members of the U.S. Paralympic Program and wound up being admitted to the program so I am now eligible to compete at Paralympic events and represent the USA at international competitions starting this year, though I will have to self-pay, meaning that I will need to find sponsors to help me fund my participation at these international table tennis competitions.

Did you make any special preparation for that tournament?

No special preparation was taken.

What were your aims in the tournament, what were you looking to achieve?

My main goals were to meet and pay my respects to the “masters” of the game whom I knew online but had never met in person, bring awareness to my mission of inspiring others to play table tennis for the wonderful health benefits, and to prove to myself that I can compete on this national level despite my medical issues. I am honored to say that I successfully achieved all my goals. ☺

Practicing/playing against a person versus practicing with a robot.

With a robot you can program it to help you focus on specific areas such as programming the robot to hit topspin shots to your backhand only. For me personally, the robot was great for me to test out a bunch of different paddles and different rubber combinations. Playing against a person is of course better when preparing to play in a tournament since you can mimic the “unpredictability factor” that you would experience against a person versus a robot which would be more repetitive and predictable.

Would you encourage your daughters to pick up the sports on a professional level?

Absolutely and I already have! The emphasis though would be to pick up the game for the sake of good health.

Importance of sports in a person’s life in general.

Important in terms of good health, confidence, and in the case of team sports, to help improve skills with working with others on a team. It is important to know that not everyone can play sports, such as those people with medical issues, so for them it is important that they seek out the advice from their doctor before starting any new physical activity.

Do you keep the bitter memories of your heart surgeries in the past and use it for your motivation or would your rather forget about them and move on?

On the contrary, none of my memories are bitter. I consider my heart surgeries and diagnosis of Parkinson’s to be like the “Prasadam” we receive at Indian temples from the priest. These medical issues are gifts that have helped me to love life and have helped me to become the person I am today as someone who is becoming more well-known worldwide as an advocate for table tennis for good health and as a motivational speaker to inspire folks to good health, and as the first Parkinson’s athlete in history to compete on an international level for table tennis. It is the DIFFICULT times in life and how you choose to deal with them that shape and define you. I will never forget them, nor would I want to. I am not ashamed of my medical issues and they have only made me stronger. These are definitely a blessing and my prasadam. ☺

Any opinions on
- the recent changes in table tennis rules or the materials used
-china’s dominance

No opinions, other than the fact that more and more people are playing the game and getting coached, so I have a feeling that eventually we will start seeing that no particular country is dominating and that more countries will be evenly matched which will be great for the game in my opinion.

You recently met Tim Boggan. Your experience with him.

It was a thrill of a lifetime for me. Gem of a human being and a walking encyclopedia of historic table tennis knowledge. I came away with a new friend for life.

Recommendations of table tennis books that youngsters learning the game can read.

“Ping Pong for Fighters” by Tahl Leibovitz (Foreword by the legendary Swedish table tennis player, Stellan Bengtsson).

“Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers” by Larry Hodges

Other hobbies and pastimes - cars and music

Car customizing (BMWs primarily), shooting pool, professional violinist and singer including Bollywood music, shark tooth and fossil hunting, motivational speaking, being a good father to my kids.

Do you like Indian movies or music, spicy cuisines.
Any plans on visiting to the country.

Love it all. Though I was born and raised in the USA, my parents did a great job making sure I was exposed to Indian culture at a young age and I love Indian culture as much as American culture. I am hoping to visit India within the next few years.

Finally on a lighter note, do you feel that you connect with table tennis itself better than others because your heart and the blades share the same carbon fibre material? Thoughts.

I do feel like I have a strong connection because of the carbon fiber, but the fact that my father was the one who introduced me to this game at the age of 4 and that this brought me and my father closer together when I was 4 is the strongest connection I have to table tennis and ultimately why I love this game so much. I love my Appa and think of him whenever I play the game. ☺

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting my interview here on your blog! My goal is to hopefully inspire others to play table tennis for the wonderful health benefits it offers and to continue playing table tennis, not only for my survival but also play table tennis on an international level as the first Parkinson's athlete in history as part of the USA Paralympic Program. Thanks again!


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