What is the difference between ping pong and table tennis? Ping pong is the game you play with friends in a bar. Table tennis is an Olympic sport.
Tahl Leibovitz, who has won more than 100 table tennis medals competing at the Maccabiah Games, Olympics, Paralympics and International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) championships, is one who considers table tennis an Olympic sport, but more importantly, the force that transformed his life.
Following a rough childhood, Leibovitz was homeless and flip-flopped between the street, homeless shelters and prison. He began practicing martial arts and his instructor suggested that he try table tennis to help with his reflexes and flexibility. Leibovitz quickly realized that he preferred the speed and surprising complexity of table tennis to getting beat up.
Leibovitz did not have money for equipment or a coach. He played as many games as possible, carefully watching how everyone moved, gripped the racket and responded to their opponents. He is still unsure how he transformed his year-long string of losses into a national and international winning record.
Even more astonishing is that he did all of this with a physical handicap. Leibovitz has osteochondroma, non-cancerous bone tumors that restrict movement and growth of the surrounding areas. His osteochondroma prevents all movement in his right wrist and limits the rotation of his left wrist. Limited wrist movement affects the player’s ability to change the spin and speed of the ball, both essential for successful table tennis play. Instead, Leibovitz battles his opponents by rotating the padal with his fingers, a system he developed, enabling him to create unique tricks to change the speed and direction of the ball in ways other players have been unable to duplicate.
Leibovitz is ranked 69th in the world by the ITTF and is able to effortlessly move between able-bodied and para-athlete competitions. “I find that able-bodied players are a little bit easier to play, because they use a lot of energy, and I have learned how to play with the same power but using less energy.”
Joel Roodyn, the Maccabiah Table Tennis Chair and longtime friend of Leibovitz said, “He is one of the greatest players I know but also one of the best and kindest.” Leibovitz’s immense talent, humility and ability to coach others is what caused his unanimous election to captain of the entire U.S. table tennis delegation. “It’s great being in a position where I can help players improve their level of play and build connections with their teammates,” Leibovitz said.
Leibovitz’s heart of gold and desire to assist was the catalyst for Project Table Tennis, a community-based organization that uses table tennis to assist veterans with PTSD, the elderly suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, adults and youth with physical disabilities and those suffering from addiction. He also works as a therapist and a social worker with the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, with private companies offering mental health services to their employees, as well as overseeing his own private practice.
From personal experience, Leibovitz believes that people’s ability to succeed and overcome is based on their relationships with others. “I had just stopped being homeless and I didn’t have money for equipment or to travel to the Maccabiah Games,” he recalled. “Sharon Brooks helped me raise the money through her synagogue. No one had ever done something like that for me before. I was competing more for Sharon and her synagogue than for myself. The gold medal I won was for her.”
It is why he is dedicated to helping others overcome their challenges and why the Maccabiah Games are some of his favorite competitions. “You connect with people in real and long-lasting ways that you can’t at other competitions. And that’s what makes this better than any other tournament,” Leibovitz said.
His open table tennis team has incredible stories of their own. Brian Alter of Englewood, said: “Being a sports fanatic, I needed a sport to watch when all sports were canceled because of COVID. The only thing on TV was table tennis.” Alter was hooked and upon learning that ping pong is played at the Maccabiah, he reached out to the coach, who asked Alter for his ranking. Having only played at home and being unable to participate in competitions as he is Shabbat observant and all competitions are held on Saturdays, Alter had no ranking and was not surprised when he received no response from the coach.
A few months later Alter was asked to submit a video of himself playing, causing him to decorate his living room with cameras. Impressed with this newbie’s skill, Lebowitz invited Alter to join the team, with only six months of experience. Alter quickly realized “that what I was playing was ping pong, but I had to learn how to play table tennis.” He joined a table tennis club, found a coach, and began his Maccabiah training.
Sarah Samuels, the lone female on the team, visited Spin, a table tennis club in New York City with her stepdad. Her natural skill impressed coach Wally Green, who offered to train her. While Samuels struggled to fit in at school, Spin and table tennis made her feel “accepted, safe and gave her the ability to be herself.” Green informed Samuels about the Maccabiah Games and she decided to participate. “How could I pass up an opportunity to travel and meet new people and discover new cultures?” she said. Her experience has far surpassed all expectations and she is planning on returning for the 2025 games.
Austin Preiss, the fourth member of the open table tennis team, was born with table tennis in his blood. His father, Scott, is in the Table Tennis Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. Preiss was introduced to the Maccabiah in 2009 after meeting Roodyn at a tournament. Preiss is competing in his third Maccabiah games and expects the team to bring home at least one gold medal. His favorite part of the games is the relationships created with fellow athletes and traveling around Israel, both strengthening his connection to Judaism. “It’s incredibly special to play with Jews from all over the world. Even though we are competitors, we share similar values and beliefs which bring us closer,” Preiss said.
Leibovitz knows his team came together seamlessly because even though they all want to win, they see the bigger picture of what the Maccabiah stands for: building a strong Jewish community around sports. “At other international competitions the focus is only on winning, no connecting with teammates. Here, real lifelong connections with teammates and competitors are made. I’m still good friends with people I met at my first Maccabiah games,” Leibovitz said. “My family isn’t religious. I’m spiritual. I’m learning that there are different ways to be Jewish and now if I’m asked, I’ll say, ‘Yes I am Jewish,’” Samuels added.
After the Maccabiah Games, at 47 years old, Leibovitz has no retirement plans. He is ready to continue training for the 2023 Paraworld Championships, the Pan-American Maccabiah Games in 2023, the U.S. Olympic trials. “I see myself going to at least two more Olympics and playing until I am at least 60.” What else do you expect from a USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame inductee?
“One of the most important things is to believe you can win. But if someone else believes you can win, it makes you even stronger. So I make sure that everyone knows that I believe they can win,” Leibovitz said. The question is not ping pong or table tennis. The question is how can it— and we—make our lives and others’ lives better?
By Danielle Barta