“Tahl Tales”: The Life of the United States’ Most Decorated Para-Table Tennis Athlete

Only a few months separate US Table Tennis player Tahl Leibovitz, 45, from the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, where he will be representing Team USA for the sixth time, and possibly not the last, as he hopes to represent his country until 2028, when Los Angeles will host the event. 

“I think that would be a good way to end it, because that’s where I started. My first one was in 1996 in Atlanta.”

For him, representing Team USA: it’s pride, it’s enjoyment, it’s meaningful.

From playing in the South Queens Boys and Girls Club, to making it to the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame, Leibovitz journey has been anything but ordinary.

Leibovitz at a young age was diagnosed with osteochondroma, a condition that affects one in five million people and that consists, as he defined it, as having “painful bone tumors all over the body”.

“It restricts my movements a little bit, but I do a lot of physical activity and I do a lot of stretching, so I’ve been able to manage it pretty well,” Leibovitz says. “But I would say I definitely notice it pretty much all the time.”

Despite the chronic illness, Tahl Leibovitz has a regular life, spending his time training, working and enjoying his time with his wife Dawn and his dog Lemon. 

“I usually get up around 10 o’clock in the morning. I walk [my dog] Lemon, and then I usually do some walking myself. I usually walk for probably about eight to 10 miles a day.”

“And I practice at a place called ‘Ping Pod’. The place is really good because you can go in and out at any time, it’s automated, so I can train at any time. It is a world class facility.”

He added that the day before the interview he had been training until 2 am. 

The “Ping Pod” Table Tennis training center for Leibovitz (CREDIT: T. LEIBOVITZ)

Outside the table tennis court, Leibovitz graduated from NYU’s school of Social Work and works in the field for the City of New York. 

“For me the biggest thing was when I finished college. I never went to high school [he took a general equivalency diploma, GDE] and now I finished college, and then I was able to do social work.”

Now he works on different projects and areas. He works in a private practice where he deals with patients with anxiety, work related problems or mild depression. He also collaborates in group therapies for the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, and working with Integrity Social Work Service for which he mainly does homebound visits for elderly citizens where he also deals with some more challenging symptoms and disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 

“The most difficult thing about working with older people is as soon as you get close to them, especially with Coronavirus, some of them die. Some of them are very sick,” Leibovitz says.

“I would say one of the best things about the work is I think people in general need support, a good support system. And I think that’s probably very useful for people and it does make a difference in their lives.”

For his own admission, it is thanks to table tennis that he managed to get where he is now, making a difference in people’s lives. 

He grew up in a rough area of New York and he did not get along too well with his parents. He ended up living on the streets for a while, and that is when he picked up table tennis, at 14 years old. 

“There was a place in Rego Park. When I got there I couldn’t beat anybody,” Leibovitz says. 

He explained that the place was open from 4 pm to 10 pm, and there were always lots of people who wanted to play, so there was a long wait.

“Maybe you could get two to three matches at night. You would be sitting the whole time. But I kept pushing, after a year and half, I started beating everybody there and I started getting better”, he says. 

He was not sure he wanted to go down this path at that time, and he said he never really imagined himself getting to this level in para-table tennis. 

“I didn’t really think I would achieve a good level at table tennis, because […] when you’re starting in something, you’re just so far away, but there’s really no secret to it. Just being persistent.”

He then added that without this sport he can’t imagine where he would have been now. 

Tahl Leibovitz playing table tennis in 2019. (CREDIT: T. LEIBOVITZ)

“I’m not really sure where I’d be without table tennis because a lot of my friends especially in the boys club […] they’re all in jail or not really doing too well. So I’m not sure really where I would be without table tennis,” he says. “I think it just makes a difference, you know, for people to have something that’s meaningful.”

Despite the many achievements in the sports, being such an internationally decorated athlete, Leibovitz said he does not consider his sports results as the biggest part of his life, as he considers his academic achievement more important. 

“I think for me, it was a little more important than winning the championships, although I still like to win and obviously want to play very competitively.”

“When I was younger, I used to define who I was through these achievements. And then I realized I don’t need anything external to feel well. It’s okay that I have these achievements, but table tennis is not bigger than life,” Leibovitz says.

Tahl Leibovitz campaign in Tokyo will begin on Wednesday, Aug. 25, with the qualification round that will hopefully lead Leibovitz to compete for a bigger result. 

Josh Eisenberg was a contributor to this story.

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