Friday, Michael Landers, of Old Westbury, is in Cary, N.C., for the last step toward qualifying in table tennis for this summer's London Olympics. He got there the usual way. Practice, practice, practice.
An elite American table tennis player is something of an oxymoron, but Landers, a 17-year-old high school senior, became the youngest male U.S. champion at 15 and, in February, won the U.S. phase of his Olympic trials in the sport commonly known by the trademarked name of Ping-Pong.
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At this weekend's North American Olympic trials, he still must place in the top three among eight players -- four Americans and four Canadians -- in a complicated seeding-based elimination tournament to make it to London.
"I don't know exactly how to describe my feelings," Landers said. "I'm definitely confident, but also a bit nervous because so much is at stake. I've been going all out with the training lately and actually took my first break from touching a racket in almost two months [on Tuesday] because of traveling."
When not polishing his game in Manhattan's Flatiron district at SPiN, the ritzy table tennis club co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon, Landers typically has trained at some hothouse of Ping-Pong excellence in China. Or Sweden. Or Japan.
Or, sometimes, at home against his table tennis robot.
"Picture a tennis ball machine, with a spout on a tube, where the balls are recycling," Landers said. "And there's a giant net to catch all the balls. The robot is just firing balls, improving my reflexes and consistency."
Since the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, Landers has forgone the brick-and-mortar of Wheatley High School for online classes to facilitate travel for training and competitions. (He has been accepted to NYU, where he is "leaning toward" the Stern Business School over a $30,000-per-year academic scholarship offered by Johns Hopkins.)
"There is no U.S. training center and 8,000 players in the whole country playing competitively," Landers said, "so a really good tournament player in the United States is like a hobby player in Germany; there's something like 80,000 players there. And 600,000 in China."
At the world team championships last month in Germany, Landers won six of seven matches before a twisted ankle forced him out. "I have to admit that was a bit scary," he said.
Landers, 5-10 and 155 pounds, pours all the hours of running and reaction drills and weight training into each shot, swinging from the heels, grunting, uncoiling from a crouch.
"The common misconception is that table tennis players have to have a really strong arm," he said. "But, really, the biomechanics are similar to a lot of other sports. It's all from your core and legs."
Landers began playing at age 2. "We had a table, and my dad put me up on a little couch so my head was above the table, and we played almost every night," Michael said.
"A futon," said his father, Stanley, a medical malpractice lawyer. "He had very good hand-eye coordination."
Michael had been introduced to soccer by his maternal grandfather, Eugene Polak, a former soccer pro in his native Poland, and "was playing five or six sports," Stanley said, "excelling at all of them. He was on the Olympic development soccer team when he broke his arm."
That was shortly before Michael's 10th birthday. "He was playing hide-and-seek with a friend," said his mother, Joan, "and decided to hide in a garbage can that had wheels on it but he didn't realize it. And he goes down on his left arm. Surgery, pins, the works. What do you do with a super-active kid then?"
He could play Ping-Pong with his arm in a sling. He drifted away from other sports and put aside bassoon and piano practice to pursue table tennis literally around the world. He gets a small stipend from the sport's U.S. federation and has sponsorships with Kellogg's and the table tennis robot company, with a pending table tennis equipment deal. He has appeared on the "Today" show, Nickelodeon and radio. He will be featured in a table tennis documentary by independent filmmakers, due for release in the coming months.
And, if he makes the Olympic team, that robot will have its virtual hands full.
About table tennis
The game: Invented in Great Britain around 1880
The name: It's officially table tennis, but historians say the sound the ball makes when it bounces inspired the name "ping-pong," and that name was patented in the United States.
Olympic debut: Seoul, 1988
Equipment: The ball, made of celluloid, weighs less than an ounce; the net is a mere six inches high on the 9-by-5-foot table.
SOURCE: Sports, The Complete Visual Reference
About Michael Landers
Height 5 feet 10 inches
Weight 155 pounds