Five open heart surgeries and a Parkinson’s diagnosis haven’t stopped Navin Kumar from pursuing his dreams.
A Parkinson’s diagnosis can feel like the end of the world to most people, but for Navin Kumar, who was diagnosed in 2013 at the age of 39, it was “the chance to be blessed again.”
“Usually, the people I meet who have PD are folks who were likely very healthy throughout the course of their life, and Parkinson’s was their first experience with having a serious illness. For me, it was the opposite. My whole life has been one medical struggle after the next,” he said.
Kumar was born prematurely with a rare congenital heart disorder known as Shone’s syndrome. He was not expected to live past 2 years old, but he defied those odds having survived five open heart surgeries.
Today, Kumar is equipped with a partially mechanical heart and cardiac pacemaker, earning him the nickname “Bionic Man” among friends, family and fans.
“I’ve been in and out of hospitals throughout my life. I am blessed to still be alive today. So, for me, having PD was another blessing in the sense that I choose to see the tough times in my life as blessings,” Kumar said. “These blessings have taught me not to take anything or anyone for granted.”
In addition to being blessed with a functioning heart, a longer life span and unlimited optimism, Kumar is a man of many talents. Aside from working for the federal government as an information technologist specialist, he is a motivational speaker and aspiring actor who will make his debut in the upcoming sci-fi film “Attack of the Unknown” starring Richard Greico and Tara Reid.
Kumar plays one of the SWAT team officers transporting a dangerous crime syndicate boss to court. Everything is running smoothly until they find themselves trapped inside a county detention center during an alien invasion.
But what he is best known for—and what earned him a global fan base—are his elite table tennis skills. Kumar is history’s first table tennis athlete with Parkinson’s to represent the U.S. on the Olympic and Paralympic levels. In fact, he’s a hopeful for the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.
“This is a sport that transcends gender, age and even physical handicap, as you can see in the U.S. Open where I played against able-bodied players,” Kumar said.
The 2018 U.S. Open Championships took place in Orlando, Florida, in December. Kumar was the first person with Parkinson’s to walk away from the tournament with medals in tow.
“It was a great way to raise awareness for Parkinson’s,” he said. “I want to make a positive impact by showing people that I refuse to let Parkinson’s control me.”
“A lot of times, a Parkinson’s diagnosis can end careers,” Kumar added. “For me, it was the opposite. In my case, my sports career started after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It allowed me to stay in shape, which led me to improve my table tennis skills and compete internationally.”
A table tennis star is born
Growing up with Shone’s syndrome limited Kumar’s ability to be physically active. “I was not allowed to go out for recess time. I would get short of breath. I was always the underdog and picked last growing up. It was a terrible experience,” he said.
“My father had the foresight to realize that, with my heart issues, I would need some type of physical activity to keep me in good condition and get my mind off of things. So, when I was 4 years old, he taught me how to play table tennis. It became a constant companion throughout my life.”
But having a congenital heart defect made it difficult to play, and Kumar would have to cast his paddle aside for long periods of time. After recovering from his last open-heart surgery, his game started to improve—that is, until the symptoms of Parkinson’s began to creep in.
“When I first started playing after my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I couldn’t handle my paddle properly. I had muscle shaking and difficulty swinging my arm,” Kumar said. Frustrated, he nearly quit the sport for good until one fateful night changed his mind—and his life.
A friend and fellow table tennis enthusiast invited Kumar to attend the premiere of “Ping Pong Summer,” a coming-of-age film starring Susan Sarandon that highlights a shy teenager’s obsession with table tennis and hip-hop music in the 1980s. The movie was filmed locally in Maryland.
“I watched this movie and felt so inspired,” Kumar said. “It ignited a fire within me. I decided I wanted to get back into table tennis. I had the opportunity to speak to the director and cast, minus Susan. I got up there and said thank you to everybody for inspiring me to get back into the sport.
Fighting the symptoms of Parkinson’s through exercise, taking his medication diligently and staying positive have contributed to turning Kumar into the strong, focused table tennis champion he is today.
“It’s very important to stay positive because negative feelings can aggravate Parkinson’s symptoms. That’s a fact. When I see my hand shake, it’s a visual cue for me to take a deep breath and think positive because when I start to think positive, my tremors get better,” he said.
“I’m in the best physical shape of my life now. I see improvements every time I go to my neurologist. If I keep this up, I should stay in stage one Parkinson’s for a long time. Like everyone else, I’m just trying to hold out until a cure is found.”
– Kathryn Jones