Nearly 50 students sweat it out in red and white football jerseys at Edina High School in Edina, Minn., every Friday afternoon. After a long six period day, students play intense matches of table tennis before they head home. Yes, that’s right, table tennis.
According to Paralympian Mitch Seidenfeld, Edina High School is a perfect example of how table tennis has finally become “cool.” In fact, much of table tennis’ transformation can be credited to Seidenfeld.
In September, Seidenfeld will be competing in his second Paralympic Games with a lot of momentum, coming off a two gold medal performance at the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is known across the country not only for his achievements in the sport, but for what he has given back to communities as well.
Seidenfeld, a dwarf, started up Table Tennis Minnesota in 1992, teaching community education courses to those who played recreationally. By 1996, he was running competitive leagues in schools.
“It encourages recreational players to get involved in organized league activity,” Seidenfeld said about the program.
Table tennis has been an integral part of Seidenfeld’s life for decades and he wants to give back to a sport that has given him meaning and purpose in life.
“Table tennis was the one sport that gave the most to me,” Seidenfeld said. “It gave me a sport that I am accepted in even though I’m only four feet, two inches tall. It’s my way of helping other people enjoy the sport too.”
It didn’t take long for Seidenfeld’s creations to succeed. Within a few years, he packaged up his programs and took them to the national level, becoming the National Director for Butterfly Leagues.
He raised enough money and got enough exposure to create programs nationwide for all those who are interested in playing table tennis both recreationally and competitively.
“They’ve taken the ideas I’ve created here in Minnesota and exposed that to the rest of the country,” Seidenfeld said.
The Lakeville, Minn., native has taken something that has been simply recreational and transformed it into a national sport. Throughout the U.S., table tennis has never been able to challenge the four powerhouse sports. Seidenfeld said it has always been an underground activity you play in your basement. In the rest of the world, it’s a completely different story.
“Table tennis is the one major sport in the world that’s never seen any major explosion here in the U.S,” Seidenfeld said. “It’s part of the culture on every other continent. It’s just in the U.S. there are four other major sports. Table tennis has never had its moment.”
Seidenfeld, the 2003 U.S. Olympic Committee Table Tennis Development Coach of the Year, has finally brought the sport the multiple moments it deserves.
“It seems like table tennis is kind of inching its way into the entertainment industry, on TV shows like the Ellen Show and a lot of the Hollywood scene,” Seidenfeld said. “It’s kind of finding its way into mainstream pop culture.”
With the Games being held in Beijing this year, the sport is even more emphasized back home in the U.S.
“Hopefully table tennis will receive a little bit more exposure just because it will be at the heart of these Olympics and Paralympics,” Seidenfeld said. “The Chinese are a powerhouse.”
According to Seidenfeld, it has already been classified as one of the main activities offered for students in schools in New York City.
“They don’t have to protect that ‘coolness’ anymore,” Seidenfeld said about the students. “They can play table tennis now. Now it’s taking on that ‘cool’ thing. It’s becoming the trendy thing to do. Over the next five years we’ll see some real growth.”
But for Seidenfeld, it never mattered if table tennis was ‘cool’ or not. What mattered was that he gave back to the table tennis community without trying to draw attention to himself.
“You can’t really set out to be an inspiration to somebody,” Seidenfeld said. “You have to live your life and try to excel at your skills and be the best you can be.”