Tahl Leibovitz

Tahl Leibovitz

by Tim Boggan 

            Tahl Leibovitz told an interviewer that he’d started going to New York City’s South Queens Boys Club when he was 14-15 years old. They had two tables there, and everyone was playing with sandpaper or wood rackets. Tahl liked the sound of the ball and the long rallies.

            Mostly he liked that there was some place for him to be. As we learn from another interviewer, Hillel Kuttler, the adolescent Tahl often “ran away from home or was kicked out.” It was the same with school. Kuttler tells us that Leo Compton, Executive Director of the South Queens Boys and Girls Club, remembers thinking, “My role at the club is: You have to go to school. But with Tahl, I broke that rule.” Tahl was different. Kuttler says, “He played table tennis for hours. When he had no one to compete against, Compton pushed the table against a wall so he could hit solo. Tahl would play from afternoon until the club closed after 10 at night. ‘Tahl would have been lost,’ said Compton, ‘if he didn’t have table tennis.’”

Compton knew what the boy’s life was like. Kuttler quotes Tahl as saying, “I ended up living on the E train, or sleeping on the street. I didn’t have anywhere to live. I’d play table tennis in the day, and at night I would take the trains everywhere.” Kuttler says, “For sustenance, Leibovitz visited a neighborhood soup kitchen and shoplifted from supermarkets. Over several years he frequently stole into a steakhouse by the back door and loaded items from the salad bar into his paper bag. He was basically stealing, he admitted. ‘I was caught a few times.’”

From the South Queens Club and his friends Glenn Brown, Santo Vaszquez, and Dave Fernandez, Dave went on a couple of years later to find a new place to play, Lost Battalion Hall. There he met Erol Young who, with “his motivation for my success, helped me a lot.”

Tahl would turn his life around—through table tennis. As Compton had realized, the boy becoming a young man needed something “to grow with and build his confidence.”

Later, we learn from a 2004 article by Alan Williams that Tahl, helped occasionally by his twin sister Maja, will work with the American Youth Table Tennis Organization (AYTTO)—will teach table tennis to mostly at-risk New York City school children who he believes are getting a chance from him and others at overcoming the daily obstacles they invariably face. Says one parent, “Tahl is a role model and mentor not just for my son Michael but for all the students. Says an assistant principal, “From Tahl they learn teamwork, respect, and concentration, which spills over into the classroom.”

Kuttler says, “Tahl missed nearly all of junior high school and high school, but passed his General Education Development exam, and eventually enrolled at Queens College, earning bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy and a master’s degree in urban affairs.”

Tahl’s progress in table tennis can be seen through interviews he had in our USATT Magazine, especially with Editor/Writer Larry Hodges. In 2001, an Interviewer, knowing Tahl had developed, and done well, as an able-bodied tournament player, asked him, “When and why did you start playing disabled table tennis?”

“In 1995,” he said—“I believe it was a qualifier for the 1996 Paralympic Games—and I remember I won two golds and a silver. The reason I got into disabled table tennis was because of Chris Lehman. He convinced me to play for the U.S. Paralympic Team. I never really thought of myself as disabled and I was a bit reluctant at first. However, over the years my physical condition deteriorated quite a bit. I slowly began to realize that I did have physical challenges.”

            “What disabilities do you have?” he was asked.

            “My main disability is benign bone tumors in most areas of my body. I have a bone tumor in my playing arm. Also bone tumors in both my knees. In disabled table tennis, that makes me a Class Seven. [Later, he’ll be a Class Nine.] There are 10 classes in disabled table tennis: 1-5 are wheelchair classes with different disabilities, and 6-10 are standing disabled table tennis. I also have problems with my toes, which are pretty twisted. The main physical problem I have, besides limited movement in my playing arm and the tumors in my knees, is my spine. I have very little space between the disks in my lower lumbar region. That causes a lot of the muscles to tighten up. I also don’t have much movement in my hips.” 

Comes now a follow-up question: “I heard something about you and the number of socks you wear. What’s that all about?” 

            “During a tournament I probably go through 40 pairs of socks. My feet and hands sweat constantly. My mother and grandfather had the same problem. The only cure really is surgery. My mom had surgery to get rid of the problem but I don’t think that’s something I’m going to do.”

Here are some early successes that allowed Tahl, the disabled player, to become a USOC Elite Level Athlete—which meant that he was helped with his schooling, health insurance, coaching, and received a quarterly stipend for his training.

            1995: At the Czech Open: Won Para Gold in Singles; Bronze in Teams. And he received from the organizers “some really nice Czech Bohemia Crystal.”

            1996: On the U.S. Paralympic Team for the Atlanta Games: Won Gold in Class 7 Singles and Bronze in Teams.

            1997: On the Maccabiah Team (he’ll play on three of them): Won Bronze in Men’s Teams and Mixed Doubles.

            1998: At the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) World Championships in Paris: Won Bronze in Singles.

            2001: He almost made the USA able-bodied World Team. “In a swing match,” he said, “I was up 1-0 and 13-7 in the second against Mark Hazinski. When I served I sometimes dropped my hand. The umpire started faulting my serves. I couldn’t adjust, so started serving backhand. Up 13-7 in the second, I served three balls into the net trying to serve legally.” Tahl says he didn’t make the Team because he’s inconsistent, and doesn’t get enough play against good players. Also in 2001, at the North American Teams, Tahl forced the very able-bodied expatriate Chinese star Fan Yi Yong, for a while the #1-rated player in the country, into the 5th.

            Considering these successes, it would seem strange to many that in 2001 Tahl could say, “I have never really trained—too many problems doing drills. They just become frustrating and I don’t have fun doing them. I have more fun playing with my left hand or chopping.” Actually, for a while my having fun, especially when I was younger, gave me a ‘bad boy’ reputation.  Also, he says, “I don’t work well with authority figures.” He says, “I don’t do things to upset people. I think I do them more to create conflict and have a bit of fun.”

 

Tahl, the 2003 and 2005 International Paralympics (IPC) Player of the Year, won a Bronze Medal in the Class 9 (more difficult than the Class 7) Singles at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games.

He considered that match for the Bronze the toughest of his career. His opponent was the #2 player in the world and Tahl had never felt such pressure as he had then. But in his own unique way he handled it: “First I started singing before the match. Then I started singing during the warm-up. I also started to focus on the letters on the ball to ease the pressure. Finally I started just trying to move my feet. I refused to stay in one spot. I started moving and hopping around because I know when I get nervous I tend to stand in one spot when I play.”

Interviewed in 2004 by Hodges, Tahl said, “My coach for the past two years has been Sean O’Neill. Sean really showed me what it takes to be a serious table tennis player. The Newgy robot he suggested I use and gave me drills for, has been a great help to me. I’m not trying to pump up Newgy, but I can tell you for sure that there would be NO CHANCE, NO CHANCE AT ALL for me to have won this 2004 Bronze medal in Athens without the robot.

“Sean has great vision for the game and is the most positive individual I have ever met. He also has an incredible energy for the game as a coach. No one could ask for a better coach. Sean has shown me that the key to being successful in table tennis is never worrying about the results and never trying to satisfy others with your performances. Sean says that we have control over our physical, mental and tactical training. Thinking about things you have no control over during the match will get you beat. Also believing you can’t lose or thinking you can’t win will get you beat. He says that being able to execute your game plan is the key factor in most top-level matches.”

In an effort to briefly describe his playing style, Tahl says, “I would classify myself as a control spinner. I would also say that I play at broken-rhythm speed. I don’t like to give a player too many of the same types of spin.”

            “It seems that a lot of U.S. players are playing with so much pressure. They never put themselves in a position where they can play free. It also seems much of this pressure is self-induced. If you want some good advice on playing under pressure you should read Brad Gilbert’s book Winning Ugly.

            As Tahl gains more experience you should read what he writes too.

After Leibovitz won that Medal in Athens, Hodges asked him, “What are your goals in table tennis?”

            “I’ve two goals now,” he said. “One is to get in better shape physically. The other is to have one of the best mental games in the country. Sean O’Neill has been helping me quite a bit in this area. One technique I’ve been using is setting 21-day affirmations. I start by putting index cards all over the house with goals to act on. I set the goals in present tense. For instance, I might write, ‘I am the German Open Champion.’ [Actually in 2006, he will be the IPC German Open Champion.] It’s funny when my wife Dawn tells me she is also the German Open Champion since she sees the same signs I do all over our house.”

            “Without my wife Dawn all my dreams and goals would not be possible. She is the main force behind Team Leibovitz and she doesn’t get nearly the right amount of credit she deserves. When they say Leibovitz won nine Gold Medals in the last three Para Pan Ams, I think she deserves at least four of them. No, wait, make that five—as long as I can keep the medal from Athens!”

            Tahl does have a life away from table tennis. When asked, “What do you like to do off court? Any hobbies?” He says, “I like reading and running.” (In 2004 he received from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg the Crystal Apple Award for Outstanding Athletic Achievements—like competing in the New York City Marathon. He also likes “museums, good depressing poetry, and some detailed art.”

            As the years go by, Tahl, now the 2006 USOC/USTTA Player of the Year, keeps winning a plethora of titles—so many at the U.S. Open or Closed, and more than you’d think in a variety of countries. I summarized that by 2015 his overseas accomplishments included: Gold Medals in Paralympic play in the Czech Republic, Germany, Romania, and Slovakia; Gold Medals in Pan Am play in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela; and USA Para Team play in China, England, France, Greece, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

            In addition, he simultaneously continued his able-bodied play—as, for example, a U.S. Closed Men’s Doubles finalist, a multiple-year medalist in ACUI Intercollegiate play, and as a New York State Singles and Doubles Champion. No wonder he’d earlier won an Award for Perseverance.   

            My favorite line in the articles I’ve gone through on Tahl is the one he wrote in 2001. He’s in a jocular mood, says: I want to win a silver medal at the Paralympics in Greece because I have a gold and a bronze. Then adds, “My long-term goal is to make the USATT Hall of Fame. Maybe I should call Tim Boggan now and see if he can get me in.”

            Tahl never made that long-distance call 14 years ago. And I never got him into our Hall. As you can see, he did that himself. Ladies and Gentlemen, Tahl Leibovitz.