Navin Kumar: A Passion for Table Tennis

Sept. 16, 2014, 9:37 p.m. (ET)

It is with great honor that I share my story with all the USATT members and worldwide visitors to the USATT website.  My name is Navin Kumar and I was born 40 years ago with a congenital heart condition that has required 5 major open heart surgeries throughout my lifetime, and I now have a mechanical heart made of the same carbon fiber material that you see in high end table tennis blades nowadays.  I wasn’t expected to survive any of my heart surgeries but with an amazing support system, that included wonderful parents and family members including my wife later on during heart surgery #5, who all prayed for my survival, I defied the odds and lived to see the days I married the woman of my dreams and witnessed the amazing births of my 2 baby girls now ages 10 and soon to be 5 years old.  To show my gratitude for being alive, I have dedicated the rest of my life to inspiring others to live heart healthy lives and I do this 3 ways:

  1. Thru motivational speaking both in person and online.
  2. Thru my hobby of car customizing – I have a heavily modified twin screw supercharged BMW 323i sedan that has been modified with the same carbon fiber material that my heart components are made of.  I use my car to tell my heart story and my car is truly an extension of me – technology made my car stronger and faster in terms of a supercharger, manual transmission swap, and carbon fiber for weight savings.  Likewise technology made me stronger and faster in terms of all the mechanical and electronic stuff inside me including the carbon fiber heart components, electronic pacemaker, and an abdominal muscle reinforced with goretex and titanium.
  3. Thru table tennis – I have seen so much improvement to my overall health thanks to table tennis and my goal is to continue inspiring others to take up this great game for the wonderful workout and positive health benefits.

As a young child in the 1970s, I was restricted in terms of participating in most physical activities, but we had a table tennis table in the garage of my house in Utah where I spent the most of the first 8 years of my life with the exception of my birth and few months living in Arizona.  My father was a table tennis champion back in India and even witnessed the famous table tennis matches back in 1952 between the legendary Marty Reisman (a good friend of mine who I miss dearly) and the Japanese player, Satoh.  So my father spent time teaching me how to play and really helped me develop confidence in myself as well as showing me how wonderful the sport of table tennis truly is.

I would continue to play table tennis off and on for the rest of my life, including in the year 1986 when I joined USATT (or USTTA as it was known back then) and played in only one tournament before taking another break from the game due to heart issues.  I managed to win a few recreational tournaments along the way in college.  In the summer of 2010 while on a Bermuda cruise with my family, I managed to win the gold medal in the doubles table tennis tournament with my brother in law, and this was the major turning point for me to get back into the game.  I started taking lessons for a few months at the Maryland Table Tennis Center (MDTTC) but then was forced to take time off from the game due to various other health issues.  3 months ago I got back into table tennis and have been getting coached by Marty Reisman’s number one student, movie director, and professional skateboarder, Jimmy Pelletier in both hardbat and sandpaper table tennis and currently I’m also being coached by the legendary Hall of Fame member, National Level Coach, table tennis author and science fiction author, Larry Hodges.  Larry is like a walking table tennis book.  The knowledge he has is simply amazing, and I particularly enjoy how he has table tennis coaching down to a science.  Both gentlemen have done me a huge service in helping to improve my hardbat and sandpaper game and reduce the chance of injury on my part.  I’m currently in the best physical shape of my life (age 40 is the new 21) and in my table tennis circle of friends I’ve been given the nickname of the “Bionic Man” thanks to the technology inside me keeping me alive, and the fact that I’m a huge fan of the Six Million Dollar Man and currently working with Lee Major’s agent to meet him hopefully soon.

I love all flavors of table tennis and that includes the sponge game, hardbat, and sandpaper.  I was diagnosed a year ago with Parkinson’s Disease so a big challenge for me now is to play table tennis despite my shaking dominant right hand and muscle stiffness that has impacted my forehand swing.  Therefore, I have difficulty using most paddles but have found a 9-ply sandpaper paddle designed by Marty Reisman and Table Tennis Nation to be one of the few paddles I can use remarkably well, and I use a Hock 3-ply #74 paddle for my training only since that paddle requires a lot more swing power to use which I currently lack, but Coach Larry and Coach Jimmy are both helping me improve my forehand swing.  Oddly enough, my backhand swing is very strong and wasn’t impacted by my Parkinson’s Disease, which is good because I drew inspiration for my backhand game from the legendary British player of Hungarian descent, Victor Barna and his “Barna Backhand Flick”.  One of my favorite paddles to use but need more practice on due to my Parkinson’s is the Dunlop Barna.  It’s the same identical paddle that my father bought when he first came to the USA from India in 1960 and that is now in my brother’s possession.  The Dunlop Barna is definitely a fantastic hardbat paddle along with the Hock paddle.

I am so grateful to be a part of the table tennis community.  I find the community to be very close knit, friendly, and always willing to help others out.  Perfect example is my dear friend, mentor, and table tennis paddle maker, Tom Ryan from Texas  He was living in California when I first met him online and he had heard about my unique table tennis/heart story and decided to do the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me which was that he made 2 table tennis paddles for me at no charge… one for sponge and one for hardbat, branded with my name with inlaid carbon fiber on the handle on one of the paddles.  I still use those paddles to this day, though my 2 girls love them so much that they want to learn how to play table tennis using those 2 paddles now.  Tom also happened to be a good friend of Marty Reisman for many years, so it goes to show that it’s a small world within the table tennis community and everyone somehow knows one another.

I met Marty Reisman thru his student, Jimmy Pelletier who has been like a brother to me for quite some time now.  I’ll never forget how Marty, being the legendary table tennis player, champion, and hustler that he was, when he first heard about my heart story he told me that I was his greatest inspiration which left me deeply humbled.  Sadly he died from heart issues 2 days before my birthday in 2012 and we had lost touch at that time.  Perhaps if we had stayed in touch I could have helped to have kept him alive.  Marty currently has a new documentary about his life that I recently saw up in New York with Jimmy, and in that documentary he elected not to have a similar heart procedure that I had actually undergone because at that time he had some important table tennis money matches he was preparing for.  He did not want people to perceive his heart troubles as a sign of weakness, and had I been keeping in touch with him at the time, I would have told him what I tell the people I give motivational talks to which is that it’s the difficult times and how you choose to deal with it that shape and define you.  My heart issues are not my weakness but my greatest strength because it has taught me how precious and beautiful life is, and has taught me to look life in the eye with a smile whenever life knocks me down and I get right back up and fight the fight with the utmost of resiliency.  Had I been there perhaps I could have convinced him to have the surgery that he really needed to have and he would still be alive today.  Lesson learned, life is short so definitely make every effort to stay in touch with the people you most care about.  The nice thing is whenever I hang out with Jimmy, I can feel Marty’s presence.  Marty and Jimmy are definitely the Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso of the table tennis world, and it’s a huge honor for me to be good friends with the both of them.  I wish to thank Sean O’Neill and the folks at USATT for doing this feature on me, the coaches (Larry Hodges, Jack Huang, and Cheng Yinghua) and members at the Maryland Table Tennis Center where I’m a full time member now, and to you all for the privilege of inviting me in to our great table tennis community with open arms and I look forward to many years of playing in the best of health and hopefully inspiring more and more people to take up this fantastic game that we call table tennis.