Tahl Leibovitz spent much of his adolescence riding New York City’s subways – not for transportation or because of the trains’ allure.
The subways were where Leibovitz lived.
A troubled home and problems at school got Leibovitz kicked out of both places. Daytime, he wandered. At night, he rode the trains.
Now, at 37, Leibovitz is flying to London to compete in the Paralympics, the international event for athletes with physical handicaps that runs Aug. 29-Sept. 6. A world-class table tennis player, Leibovitz has osteochondroma, a sometimes-painful condition characterized by noncancerous bone tumors.
Leibovitz is in class 9, among the least severe physical limitations that categorize Paralympians. (Classes 1 through 5 are for those who are wheelchair users, with class 1 the most severe.) Leibovitz also has competed in standard tournaments, including the 2004 Olympic regionals, where the United States lost to Canada. He earned two bronze medals at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel and plans to compete there in 2013.
The 227-member United States team includes at least one other Jewish athlete, Ian Silverman, a 16-year-old swimmer from Baltimore whose cerebral palsy affects both legs. “This is my first international meet,” Silverman said Monday from Germany, where his Paralympic team is training. “I’m really privileged and honored to represent the U.S. Hopefully, I’ll do well and make the country proud.”
Olympic great Michael Phelps, who trains at the same swim club, has given Silverman pointers on his flip turns and kicking. “That was really nice of him,” Silverman said.
Leibovitz, meanwhile, discovered table tennis as a teenager. A Haifa native who moved to New York at 3, the adolescent Leibovitz often ran away from home or was kicked out by his father, Ernest, a Romanian native who fought in Israel’s Six-Day War. The sport was his salvation.
“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 related Sunday night from the Ozone Park, Queens, condominium he shares with his wife, Dawn. “I’d play table tennis in the day, and at night I would take the trains everywhere.”
One summer, Leibovitz slept on the street nearly every night – other times, at the beach in Rockaway and at two Manhattan branches of Covenant House, a national organization that assists at-risk youth.
Leibovitz had discovered table tennis at Lost Battalion Hall, a Queens parks department facility. He struggled to score any points in his games and waited hours for the chance to play again. At age 16, Leibovitz started winning. He did well at a tournament in Indianapolis and had found his passion.
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 – “basically, stealing it,” he admitted. “I was caught a few times.”
It was a long fall from Leibovitz’s 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 General Educational Development exam and attended a community college. Leibovitz dropped out because his educational gaps placed him far behind in math. 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, Leibovitz will continue working toward a master’s of business administration.
Leo Compton, who retired last January as executive director of the South Queens Boys and Girls Club, remembers Leibovitz being troubled by incessant bullying about his height – he now stands 5’4” – and his right arm’s being shorter than his left. Leibovitz said that the teasing led to fights and to his being kicked out of school. His home life deteriorated simultaneously, with Compton often asked to mediate between the boy and his mother, Felicia Weisskohl. She died of cancer in 2007.
“I’d say, ‘You can’t ride the trains. It’s dangerous. You don’t have to love [your mother], but you have to respect her,’ ” said Compton. “My rule at the club is: You have to go to school. 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. Leibovitz favored table tennis and billiards – never playing other sports or attending personal development sessions, Compton said.
Leibovitz played for hours. When Leibovitz had no one to compete against, Compton pushed the table against a wall so he could hit solo. Leibovitz 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.”
Leibovitz left at 18 to train at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s center in Colorado, returning to New York a serious player. He qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team, and taught table tennis at the South Queens club when not away at competitions.
The sport is now Leibovitz’s livelihood. He’s worked for SPiN New York, a table tennis center in Manhattan co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon, since it opened a few years ago. A substitute teacher in city schools, he also coaches promising players in the Queens neighborhood of Flushing, home to a large immigrant community from South Korea, where the sport is wildly popular.
Sponsorship deals with the Stiga table tennis equipment company and United Airlines help, and Leibovitz receives USOC stipends and health insurance.
Zeev Glikman, a coach on Israel’s Paralympic table tennis team, said he looks forward to seeing Leibovitz in London. The two have faced each other in the Paralympics. During free time at competitions, Leibovitz asks about Israeli political and diplomatic news. “He’s very nice,” said Glikman. “He’s one of the best players in the world in his category.”
Assessing his medal chances in London is a dicey proposition for Leibovitz, who earned a gold medal in singles and a bronze medal in team competition at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, and a bronze in singles in Athens in 2004. He also competed at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008.
“You can’t control the outcome of a match. You want to control what you can: your training and your energy level,” he said. “You can’t go into any match and say, ‘I’m going to win it.’ But you have to have the belief that you can win it.’ ”