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Matters of the heart of an unshakable bionic man

By Zhao Xu in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-10-30 00:58
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He had two cardiac operations before he was 4 and he has Parkinson's disease, but that does not stop Navin Kumar from striving to be a table tennis king

At 6:30 am one Saturday in March 2016 Larry Hodges arrived at the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg, 80 kilometers from Baltimore, nearly three hours earlier than he usually would. There, in a corner of the club, he set up a ping-pong robot, one that shoots balls out from between two spinning disks for as long as required.

For sixteen hours, between 7am and 11pm, Navin Kumar, who had been training with Hodges for a few years, put the robot to the test. Kumar, who has a congenital heart condition, had been diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's disease three years earlier.

"I battled the robot for 16 hours straight in order to raise $1,600 that would allow me to travel with Team USA and compete at the Para Open in Cluj, Romania, later that year," Kumar, 45, said. "Throughout I didn't stop to eat: I held the table tennis paddle in one hand and ate my sandwich with my other hand.

"I thankfully only needed to urinate that day. The bathroom was 20 feet (7 meters) from the table tennis table, so I gave myself a 60 second bathroom break."

It was a test of kinds for Hodges too.

"While Navin got down to his challenge, I had a lot of writing done – eleven articles in total – on a nearby table that had been barriered off together with his one. All day and night it was just a steady smack … smack … smack, about one per second, on and on and on."

More than $1600 was raised that day, and Kumar eventually went to Romania, where, with a ping player from Israel, he defeated the pair representing Japan and Russia, thus winning his first-ever Para doubles match. (The year before, Kumar had played in the Para Open in Barcelona, Spain.)

"I am the first athlete in history to actively compete with Parkinson's on the Olympic and Paralympic level," said Kumar, who described being told of the diagnosis of the disease in 2013 as "not that upsetting".

"I've had heart issues my entire life and have never known a normal life. The Parkinson's was just another medical challenge to make me stronger."

Kumar was born in Arizona in 1973 of parents who hailed from India. The next year the family moved to Utah, where this father, whom Kumar described as his greatest inspiration, worked as a mining engineer.

Before turning 4, Kumar had already undergone two open-heart operations, carried out within two weeks of one another. The third would come when he was 8, followed by a fourth one when he was 19 and a fifth when he was 27.

"The first time I realized that I was somehow different was in kindergarten. I saw I couldn't run as far as the rest of the class. As a young child, it scared me."

The heart condition meant that he was barred from taking part in almost all physical activities.

"We had a table tennis table in the garage of our house. My father was a table tennis champion back in India and, with doctor's approval, he began teaching me how to play… And I played on and off throughout my childhood."

One memorable moment for Kumar was when as a teenager he captained his high-school table tennis team in a national championship and was runner-up. Another was in the summer of 2010 when with his partner he was champion in the doubles while on a Bermuda cruise with his family.

"That was the major turning point for me to get back to the game. I started taking lessons with Hodges and others at the Maryland Table Tennis Center."

Over the past few years, as Parkinson's has taken hold, Hodges and the coaches have witnessed Kumar's determination "to defy odds to be where I am today", in the latter's words.

"At first it was very difficult. My right hand would shake uncontrollably, which rendered my forehand and backhand shots very weak."

Two friends helped him to get back to basics and focus on his forehand play with an inverted rubber on the forehand side of the bat, and backhand play with long pips rubber on the backhand side of my bat, he said.

"They also helped me improve the transition from the forehand to the backhand – something basic to an average ping pong player but not me. The significant Parkinson's tremor that I have in my dominant right hand, plus the muscle stiffness and slow movement, means that I have to quickly teach my right hand how to play each time I play table tennis."

Hodges has seen Kumar improve markedly since he made a more serious commitment to ping pong shortly after his diagnosis of Parkinson's.

"Now he's getting better and better at suddenly smashing with the forehand, or flipping his racket to make another sudden smash with his backhand."

Kumar's doctor recently reported a 94 percent improvement in Kumar's motor skills since 2013.

Yet for Kumar, nothing is more marvelous than the fact that these days, once he starts playing, his hand stops shaking.

"I can't really say why this happens, but that is just what happens," he said in a YouTube video that also shows him playing apparently unaffected.

"Maybe because the brain is too preoccupied with table tennis, it doesn't have time for the Parkinson's thing that has caused my hands to shake. That's the beauty of the sport."

Last December Kumar won two bronze medals at the US Open, one in the Para event class, the other in a hardbat ratings event. As proud as he is, winning has never been his priority, he said.

"We are all winners because we are all in good enough health to play this sport which has the ability to improve our health."

In July Kumar underwent a procedure to correct atrial fibrillation. As a result, he took a break, before resuming training for the inaugural World Parkinson's Table Tennis Championship in Pleasantville, 50 kilometers from New York, in mid-October, where he bagged a bronze for Men's singles and silver for Men's doubles.

"Navin has the ability to find the positive in anything, so I haven't really seen any change of mood in the past," Hodges said. "However, he likely has them but doesn't give in to them. I know about his struggles here."

Kumar, who has been invited to speak to various groups, including patients, caregivers, doctors and corporate employees, is always keen to talk of what he has come through.

"The people I inspire wind up equally inspiring me as each individual story has helped me see and appreciate what others have gone through."

Kumar's two daughters, aged 10 and 15, have also tried their hand with the bouncing ball.

"Both of them are left-handed and right-handed so they can play table tennis with both hands naturally," he said.

For the two most recent open-heart operations Kumar underwent to treat his congenital defects, when he was 19 and 27, mechanical implants were installed in his heart along with a pacemaker.

A few years ago, a paddle-maker friend from Texas made two table tennis paddles for Kumar free of charge.

"One is sponge and the other hardbat, branded with my name with inlaid carbon fiber on the handle on one of the paddles."

It is of carbon fiber that Kumar's heart implants are made. One of his hobbies is customizing cars. He sees a car made stronger, lighter and faster by using a supercharger and carbon fiber as an extension of himself as well as a metaphor for his own life story.)

"Growing up, I was a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man," said Kumar, referring to a popular American television series of the 1970s in which the character in the main role, a former astronaut, has superhuman strength because of his bionic implants.

"I had wished to be him as a kid, and now my wish has been granted."

"I've got the mechanical part and the electronic part. The only thing that's lacking is the cool bionic sounds. But hey, I can live with that."

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