Being afflicted with Parkinson’s disease was likely one of the last things that was on Navin P. Kumar’s mind.
The 45-year-old Gaithersburg, Md. resident was born with a heart condition that has required a series of surgeries throughout his life. During Kumar’s last surgery, he suffered a stroke, which triggered Parkinson’s.
Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself, Kumar turned to table tennis, a sport he played as a child.
Last weekend, Kumar was one of more than 60 players from at least a dozen countries who competed at the Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville last weekend for the inaugural Parkinson’s World Table Tennis Championships.
“There’s something about table tennis that when I play it preoccupies the mind,” said Kumar, who captured the bronze medal in the men’s singles competition. “I think it’s the speed at which that ball moves. It just allows me to play and forget that I have Parkinson’s. The brain kind of tunes it out and I’m kind of able to reap the health benefits of the sport.”
The idea for the tournament came from Nenad Bach, a Croatian musician who was forced to give up his 40-year music career because of Parkinson’s but had taken up table tennis to stay active, said Ian Marshall, publications manager for the International Table Tennis Foundation (ITTF). Bach, now a Croton-on-Hudson resident, convinced ITTF officials to make the tournament a world title event.
Bach was a strong advocate for people with Parkinson’s to play table tennis because while there is no cure, he believes it delays progression of the disease, Marshall said.
The enthusiasm from the players and spectators on hand was outstanding, with a hush falling over the facility during the action, and then a burst of applause following a volley, he noted.
“The response, so far, in the last two, three hours has only been positive,” Marshall said early Saturday afternoon. “Everyone has been enjoying the play and I think you can tell because everything is quiet. People are obviously concentrating playing table tennis.”
For the men’s and women’s singles competition, players were grouped in classes based on level of impairment, Marshall said. It followed the same classifications that are used in the Paralympic Games. The doubles match-ups are done by lottery.
While players came from around the globe, including Japan, Sweden, Brazil, Germany and other nations, the women’s singles winner didn’t have to travel far. Margie Alley, who lived for many years in Briarcliff Manor before recently moving to Pleasantville, defeated Japan’s Yurie Kato in straight sets to take the title.
Alley said that she played table tennis as a child and then was a tennis player. But after contracting Parkinson’s about seven years ago, she was eventually forced to give up the larger court for the ping pong table.
She believes that the activity keeps her mind sharp and is a way to stay in good physical condition, calling table tennis “my sport for the future.”
“I do a lot of things to keep myself healthy,” said Alley. “This is a big one because it’s fun for me. It’s very close to where I live and it’s something I don’t get tired of.”
Jan Norlindh, who made the trip from Gothenburg, Sweden for the tournament, said table tennis relieves stress for him and takes away the focus of having Parkinson’s.
“It gives you a good feeling,” Norlindh said. “It hard to explain, but it’s a fast sport and you never know where the ball is coming from. Maybe it’s good for the brain.”
Marshall said the plan is to have the tournament make its rounds into different countries each year. Ultimately, the goal is to have it included as a sport in the Paralympic Games, he said.
For Kumar, who will appear in a movie to be released in early 2020 called “Attack of the Unknown,” said that he feels blessed that he can tackle the hurdles he has faced – and table tennis has helped him achieve that.
“If life knocks me down, I get up and say thank you, and Parkinson’s and my heart condition have been a blessing,” he said. “They’ve taught me to love life and realize how lucky we are to wake up each morning, take that first deep breath and just say thank you.”