China’s Ma Lin has not had an easy year leading up to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, which open on Wednesday (7 September).
Before even starting to train for Rio, the defending Paralympic champion from Heilongjiang had to recover from a knee injury he had sustained after the World Championships in 2014.
“While I was recovering [in 2015], I ate a lot of food to get the nutrition I needed to properly recover, and I couldn’t move, work out and train as much as I used to,” he explained.
Then, he had to start over, which involved losing all the weight he had previously gained.
“In preparation for the Rio Paralympics, I’ve had to lose the 45 pounds that I had gained during recovery. As a result, I’m also at a better place psychologically,” he said. “We will see if the hard work pays off in Rio. Sometimes, winning also has to do with luck.”
These will be Ma’s third Paralympic Games. Since making his debut in Beijing 2008, the 26-year-old veteran feels he now perceives the Games differently.
“It [Beijing 2008] was my first time. I was nervous and there was a lot of pressure, but it was different. Back then, I was taking charge, I was attacking.
“I wanted to make a name for myself, so I put pressure on myself. This time, the expectations and the pressure to perform well are coming from the outside.”
After winning gold in both men’s singles class 9 and team events in London 2012, Ma feels even more pressure now than he did before.
“I definitely feel more pressure for these Games than I did four years ago. At the last Games, I was [turning] 23. I told myself if I didn’t play well, I would at least get a better shot at the next Games. But this time, I am at those ‘next Games’.”
Despite the pressure, Ma confidently knows the Chinese team’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We have a longstanding tradition of dominating the sport, so the national team can pride itself on its great technique and training programmes in both Olympic and Paralympic table tennis.
“Compared to other countries, our training is more strategic and focuses on little details that end up going a long way. That usually gives us more speed than the competitors from other countries. On the other hand, we might come up a little short in strength compared to the Europeans.”
While Ma firmly believes the Chinese Para table tennis team’s systematic and detailed training will greatly contribute to the athletes’ performance at the Paralympic Games, he also treats every competition like the most important one in his life.
In fact, he believes this kind of mentality is what allows him to renew himself year after year as one of the best Para table tennis players in the world.
“I keep in mind I must first and foremost fulfill my duties as an athlete when I train,” he said. “No matter how big or small the competition is, I always give everything I have and push myself to be the best I can be.”
After Rio, Ma, whose hobbies include snowboarding and scuba diving, plans on taking time off to travel and spend time with his family.
“My son just turned one, but my training schedule does not let me see him very often, so before making any big decisions concerning the next four years, I want to be with my family and enjoy some time off.”
Para table tennis will take place 8-17 September at Riocentro – Pavillon 3. The men’s class 9 singles gold will be contested on 11 September.