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Disability Won't Impede This Ping-Pong Player!

January 17, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Despite a disability, Tahl Leibovitz was among the table-tennis players who converged on Philadelphia last weekend for the Olympic trials.

All that was missing was some wood paneling, a few rock posters tacked to the walls and somebody's mom shouting down the basement steps that dinner was ready.

For the most part, ping-pong is known as a light-hearted form of entertainment. Yet it's clearly serious business for the competitors who filled the Daskalakis Athletic Center at Drexel University over the weekend.

Wearing shirts from sponsors, chugging Gatorade in between matches and taking timeouts to talk strategy with their coaches, the competitors were the best players in the United States. The coveted prize for winning: a chance to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

When the competition started on Jan. 10, participants were trying for one of two spots in the Olympic trials the following day.

Perhaps the most unlikely player to move on past day one was Tahl Leibovitz, a 32-year-old who has benign bone tumors in several parts of his body. The degenerative disease he's had since birth makes playing the sport he loves painful on his spine and feet, and makes movement a constant struggle.

He doesn't even have a full range of motion in his right hand -- the one he uses to play.

Still, Leibovitz is a decorated table-tennis player. The native of Queens, N.Y., got a bronze medal in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. In 2007, he came away with three gold medals at the Para Panamerican Games in Brazil, and won medals in competitions in France, Argentina, Germany and the United States.

Among able-bodied players -- where the ball can approach 100 mph -- Leibovitz is ranked 49th by the USA Table Tennis.

But isn't it tough for someone with disabilities to face the best players in the country?

"I actually find it easier to play against able-bodied players because they attack very strong. The paralympic players play very smart, and they move me and my movements are not very good," said Leibovitz.

The bone tumors cause back pain, so he can only train two or three times a week. "In order to be competitive, you really need to play a little bit longer, so I just try to fight and stay out there as long as I can," said Leibovitz, who's enrolled at Queens College and is studying nutrition.

On that first day, when players took their positions at one of the six tables that lined the converted basketball arena, Leibovitz shined. The competitors realized they had to prevail Jan. 10 to be allowed into the trials held over the rest of the weekend. Out of 24 players vying for two spots, Leibovitz qualified.

His strategy was simple: "You want to attack first but with good spin and good placement. People have certain power zones in their forehand and backhand, and you want to keep away from them."

Against the better players during the trials, Leibovitz didn't do well, and so did not qualify for the Olympic Games. He can take solace in the fact that he's still on his way to Beijing, after already qualifying for the Paralympic Games, which are usually held within a week or two of the Olympics. 

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