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Ping-Pong Prodigy Seeks Olympic Glory


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're reporting on Olympic hopefuls as they train for this summer's games in London. Some are already Olympic veterans. Others are just embarking on what could lead to a long Olympic career. NPR's Richard Gonzales went to meet one of the latter in San Jose, California: a 17-year-old table tennis phenom.


RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Michael Landers looks like many American teenagers: sandy blonde, medium athletic build and engaging smile. But watch him play and you're taken in by his intense focus on the tiny orange Ping-Pong balls he returns to his coach with machine-like consistency.


GONZALES: And then there are his massive thighs on legs that make his powerful stroke possible. On this day, Landers' coach wants those legs to move even faster.



EBUEN: Yeah, yeah. Correct. Keep it up.

GONZALES: It's a typical training day - up to five hours, five to six days a week - and that's after a couple of hours in a gym each day strengthening his legs and core. Michael Landers says table tennis is not all about arm strength.

MICHAEL LANDERS: What table tennis is, sometimes people joke around about it, but it really is a combination of sprinting, boxing and playing chess at the same time.

GONZALES: It's like chess because he has to stay one step ahead and limit his opponent's next move; like boxing because he has to be strong, agile and quick; and like sprinting, well, we're back to the legs.

LANDERS: At this high level, if you don't move your legs, you have no chance.

GONZALES: Landers says he was always a good athlete as a child - tennis, baseball, soccer - but perhaps fate took over when he was 9 years old, and he broke his arm.

LANDERS: Coincidentally, I had broken my left arm, and I'm right-handed. So I needed two surgeries, and I had pins holding the bones together. And I went to the table tennis club and took a lesson and found out what it was all about, and I started playing more and more. And here I am today.

GONZALES: Six years after breaking his arm, in 2009, Landers became the youngest player to win the U.S. Men's National Singles Championship at age 15. Training for the Olympics is now his life. Landers is completing high school through online courses, and he spends long periods away from his home and parents on Long Island. Still, he doesn't want anyone thinking that his Olympic quest is someone else's agenda.

LANDERS: Often, in this sport, especially and a lot of other sports, you see parents pushing their kids to practice long hours, and they burn out by the time they're my age. But it's all coming from inside of me, and that really is a good feeling.

GONZALES: Here in California, Landers has a surrogate parent in his fitness trainer, Goran Milanovic, a former discus thrower from Serbia, who travels with him everywhere.

GORAN MILANOVIC: He's a very, very humble young man, works so hard and very respectful. I treat him like my own. I mean, it's going in the right direction. He's young. His prime is not for the next six to eight years.

GONZALES: Milanovic says he has his sights set on training Landers not only for the London games this summer but for Brazil in 2016 and beyond. Of course, by that time, Landers will have outgrown the label Ping-Pong prodigy, and it's probably just as well.

LANDERS: Prodigy is a very touchy word. It's kind of thrown around very freely. And I don't think of myself as a prodigy. I think of myself as a normal kid who got to the top by working hard and just had a combination of luck, hard work and determination, just being in the right place at the right time.

GONZALES: Landers has one more hurdle in his quest for the Olympics. He must survive a single-elimination tournament between the eight best American and Canadian players in mid-April. Only three of the eight will go to the Olympics in London this summer. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.