The 250-member U.S. team to the London Paralympics, which starts tomorrow, includes Tahl Leibovitz, a world-class table tennis player who spent much of his adolescence on New York’s E train, reports The Jewish Week. The 37-year-old Leibowitz spent his days wandering and nights riding the trains due to troubles at home and school.
“My dad had problems with alcohol. At about 14, before I entered high school, I ended up living on the E train. I didn’t have anywhere to live,” Leibovitz said. “I’d play table tennis in the day, and at night I would take the trains everywhere.”
Over 4,200 athletes from 166 countries and territories are participating in London’s Paralympics, the largest international competition for athletes with physical handicaps. Leibovitz, competing in least-severe physical limitations class, has osteochondroma, a sometimes-painful condition characterized by non-cancerous bone tumors. A native of Haifa, northern Israel, he moved to New York at age 3.
Leibovitz discovered table tennis at Lost Battalion Hall, a Queens parks department facility. He struggled at first to score any points in his games and waited hours for the chance to play again. At 16, Leibovitz started winning. He did well at a tournament in Indianapolis and found his passion.
For sustenance, he visited a neighborhood soup kitchen and shoplifted from supermarkets. It was a long fall from his days attending Hebrew school at the Ozone Park Jewish Center, close to where he grew up in Howard Beach. He missed nearly all of junior high school and high school, but passed his GED exam and attended a community college. Eventually, he enrolled at Queens College, earning bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy and a master’s degree in urban affairs. When he returns from London, he will continue working toward an MBA.
Leo Compton, a former executive director of the South Queens Boys and Girls Club says Leivovitz faced constant bullying about his height and right arm, which is shorter than the left.
“My rule at the club is: You have to go to school,” recalled Compton. “But with Tahl, it was different. He would’ve been lost if he didn’t have something to grow with and build his confidence. He had that with table tennis.”
At the club, Leibovitz befriended other boys passionate about the game.
When the boy had no one to compete against, Compton pushed the table against a wall so he could hit solo. He would play from afternoon until the club closed after 10 at night.
“The ball and paddle would just click, and he could spend an hour straight without missing the ball at all,” Compton said. “Then I bought a machine for him that could hit the ball to him at angles.”
Table tennis is today the livelihood of Leibovitz who works for SPiN New York, a Manhattan table tennis center, coaches promising players in Queens and works as a substitute teacher in city schools.
This story originally appeared on the JTA website.