Table Tennis. Germany. Olympics. Bassoon. Susan Sarandon.
Sounds like a bizarre list from a nightmare-inducing aptitude test asking you to figure out which one doesn't belong. Fear not. It's just Michael Landers' life.
The 17-year-old pingpong prodigy is in the middle of qualifying for London this summer and a shot at a gold medal. But his story has so many strange keywords in it you'd think someone was having fun with his Wikipedia page. So how does a carefree kid with no Olympic dreams find himself in the midst of all this? It starts with hide and seek.
When he was 9, Landers broke his arm while hiding in a trash can during one of the aforementioned games. Unable to play any two-armed sports during his convalescence, he took to the ping pong table.
"I was always a fan of racket sports," he says. "I played a lot of tennis, and liked ping pong before the accident."
Landers got better and better, but wouldn't know just how promising a career was in store until four years later when he made the under-15 national team. That's when he started traveling for the sport. He's been all over the world, including six trips to China.
"That is not the place for me," he admits. "I was alone there for like a month, so my Mandarin is pretty decent, but it's another world."
Landers, who is now sponsored by Team Kellogg's, prefers Germany, citing the simpler lifestyle there. Not that he would know much about that. He's so busy that he's finishing up high school through online courses. He commutes into New York City five or six days a week to practice. He also has a rigorous training schedule with workouts that are heavy on core and leg exercises.
"Your arms don't have to be that strong for table tennis," he says, "it's a common misconception."
You'd also be wrong to think that pingpong is his only talent. Landers is an incredibly gifted musician. He has perfect pitch and can play just about anything he hears on the piano. He also studied bassoon and made the New York State Honor Band.
"It's really weird. I had no musical talent when I was younger," Landers confesses. "I couldn't even sound out 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"
Then he learned the note names and something clicked. With all of his focus and energy on table tennis, there isn't serious time for music, but Landers likes to sit down at the piano occasionally, calling it a stress reliever.
He also likes to unwind with some friendly rallies against the co-owner of SPiN, the table tennis club in New York where he trains. That would be Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon. She's a huge proponent, follower and player of the sport.
"She's pretty good at ping pong," Landers says, "at least for a recreational player."
He counts Sarandon as not only the coolest celebrity that he's gotten to meet over the years, but also a friend, and attended her Christmas party a couple months ago.
Now though, his focus is back purely on table tennis. Landers was in Cary, N.C. this past week for the first leg of qualifying for Team USA. He finished at the top, winning nine of 11 matches. He's well on his way to London, a place that his travels have never taken him. So what would his
first trip there mean if he could return with gold?
"Oh my God, I can't even think about that. It would be incredible," Landers says. "But I have to get there first."
Follow Adam on Twitter @adamkwatson.
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