USA Table Tennis

Mitch Seidenfeld

Marcy Monasterial, who with one arm had been a member of the able-bodied 1957 U.S. Team to the Stockholm World’s, points to the 1990 World Championship Games for the Disabled to introduce Minneapolis’s 26-year-old Mitch Seidenfeld to us. Who, we want to know, IS this dwarf, er “little person”? Unseeded in Men’s Class 8, he was “the overwhelming surprise of the U.S. Table Tennis contingent. In his very first try at an international tourney of world-class athletes, he defeated Thierry Garofolo of France to win the gold medal in his class, and become World Champion.” As we’ll see, many more successes would follow.

Two years later, the 15-sport IX Paralympic Games in Barcelona was quite an impressive spectacle for the 21-strong U.S. Table Tennis contingent (“17 in wheel chairs, 1 amputee, 1 dwarf, and 2 les autres”). As Monasterial reports, “the Games opened at the Olympic Stadium with great fanfare—memorable shows, speeches, fireworks, the lighting of the Paralympic Torch—all of which clearly excited the 5,000 players and 65,000 spectators that included the King and Queen of Spain.”

Likely more eyes were on the team of Monasterial/Seidenfeld than anticipated, for there was an outrageous snafu with entry forms, and the celebrated U.S. pairs, past medals winners, of Mike Dempsey/Andre Scott Anderson, and Jennifer Johnson/Terese Terranova were omitted from the Men’s and Women’s Team competition. Since Marcy was a class 10 player, Mitch, though a Class 8 player, had to compete in the higher class, but against Spain he came through with two wins that earned the Americans a bronze medal. Then in the Singles, back in his proper class 8 (disabilities in both legs), Mitch was undefeated. He would be world-ranked #1 in Class 8 Singles from 1990-1998. And even #1 in Class 10 Singles in the American Region.

The World Champion title and those gold wins prompted Mitch’s friend Sheri Soderberg Pittman to do a Profile on him for the Nov./Dec., 1992 issue of Table Tennis Topics. We find that before going to the Paralympics he’d received a BA in English from the University of Minnesota. “Finishing the college requirements that I’d been putting off was quite an accomplishment for me,” he said. “It gave me the confidence that I could do something really big in Barcelona.”

Mitch SeidenfeldSeidenfeld has been playing table tennis since he was 13.  “My dad,” he says, “was the best of all my coaches.” But he also thanks John Soderberg, the State Champion during the first four years that Mitch played, “for inspiring him.” Sheri in her article says. “The latest Minnesota rankings have Mitch #1 and John #2.” In 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2003 Mitch would again be Minnesota State Champion, eventually achieving his highest rating of 2333.

The World Champ says he credits table tennis “for helping me to gain the confidence to know that through practice, and through using the same steps that I took to get good in a sport, I can develop my skills whether it be in training, speaking, or writing.” Before going to Barcelona, Mitch had acted in a local production of “The Elephant Man.” Now he’s writing a screen play called “Net and Edges” which has to do “with both table tennis and differences and disabilities.”

“I’m still very confused by the term ‘disabled’ and being labeled as disabled,” Mitch says. “But,” he adds, “when it comes to being able to participate in sporting events and associations that are clearly positive for gaining self-esteem, developing skills, and relating better with people of all types of differences, then I can begin to accept that if someone needs to call me disabled, or if I need to call myself disabled, such reasons are o.k.” Meanwhile, “as Minnesota’s official liaison with the National Schools Program, Mitch plans to continue merging his work in introducing table tennis to school districts with his work in the area of differences and disabilities.”

“Although Mitch is a dwarf, he prefers the term ‘little people’ because it doesn’t have the same negative connotations as either ‘dwarf’ or ‘midget’ do. He is actively involved with the group, Little People of America, and the sporting organization, the Dwarf Athletic Association of America. The DAAA sponsors him when he competes in international competition by funding his trips and providing support staff.”

In 1993 at the World Dwarf Games in Chicago, and later in 1997 at those Games in Peterborough, United Kingdom, Mitch added two more World Championships to his resume. By the time of the Peterborough tournament, he’d been named USOC/DAAA Athlete of the Year four times.

With the coming of the new millennium, Seidenfeld, continuing to follow a very productive path, had plenty of responsibilities. These included being “Program Director for Table Tennis Minnesota, USATT North Regional Coaching Director, and Midwest Regional Coordinator for the National Schools Program for Table Tennis.” He was also responsible “for six different Coaching Programs in 2003 that are run on a continuous basis, which include various age groups and playing levels. (At one point he’d have a 10-team High School League going in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area.)  Since in addition to coaching three Minnesota State Champions and medalists at Junior and Senior Olympics, it was hardly a surprise that in 2003 he  was named USTTA Developmental Coach of the Year.

Of course, despite his many non-playing professional responsibilities, Mitch still loved to compete—and in doing so he wasn’t coming up empty-handed. In July, 2005 at the Pan Am Cup in Argentina, “he won a gold, silver, and bronze, and qualified for the next World Championships in Montreux, Switzerland. Then he attended the Dec., 2005 Paralympic Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas, held under Tournament Chair Jennifer Johnson with the help of Coordinators Sharon Frant Brooks and the taken-ill Mike LoRusso. In this strong international field of 130 players from 26 countries, Seidenfeld teamed with Open Standing and Class 9 Champion Tahl Leibovitz to win a bronze.

It was in 2005, though, as his Coach Sean O’Neill tells us in his Nov.-Dec., 2007 article, that Seidenfeld “got reclassified from a class 8 to a class 10, the least disabled class. This unfortunate change was due to the fact that Mitch didn’t play in 2002 when they redid the classification system and forgot to include dwarfs.” However, at the 2007 Para Pan American Games in Rio De Janeiro, Mitch was finally placed in the right category (class 7—arm and leg limitations). And now with Sean’s help he did just fine in this new category—won the gold for Team USA. And with it not only qualified for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, but was voted “the most outstanding standing disabled player of the Americas for the past two years.”

USA experienced Team Leader Larry Rose takes us now to Beijing where “over 4,200 athletes from 148 countries” came together to vie for the gold. “The Paralympic Torch was carried into the Bird’s Nest and passed from one Chinese Paralympic gold medalist to another until it was finally handed to a gold-medal-winning athlete who pulled himself, along with his wheelchair, up a suspended cable hand over hand to light the Torch.”

Seidenfeld opened his four-man round robin Group with a -7, -6, 8, -7 loss to the Group’s #2 seed, Poland’s Adam Jurasz. But then he took out the Group’s # 1 seed, France’s Stephane Messi, “the defending class 7 gold medalist, 8, 5, 11, and then South Africa’s Johan DuPlooy, 7, 7, 11. When Messi rallied from down 9-3 in the first game to win three straight over Jurasz, Mitch advanced to the semi’s, his eye on an Olympic medal.

Mitch Seidenfeld“With his wife Tina and her parents in the stands, and his teammates ready to cheer,” Mitch faced Chao Qun Ye, China’s loop-killing second seed. Mitch fought well, but lost three straight, dropping the first 11-9 after being 9-7 up, and the last 15-13 after being 10-6 up. Then for the bronze against Spain’s Alvaro Valera, Mitch again went down fighting, -11, -14, 7, -5. After that, another disappointment in the Team’s—with Tahl and Mitch losing in the fifth match to a Ukranian team.Still, there was another playing honor for Mitch—the 2008 USATT Paralympian of the Year.

And now of course—it couldn’t have been better scripted—there was Mitch accepting his Hall of Fame award while wife, kids, and cameras were all smiles