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Paddling To Stay Afloat

Paddling To Stay Afloat

Once homeless, Paralympian Tahl Leibovitz found salvation in table tennis.

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 he lived.

Due to a troubled home and problems at school, he spent his days wandering and his nights riding the trains.

Now 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, he has osteochondroma, a sometimes-painful condition characterized by non-cancerous bone tumors.

Leibovitz is in class 9, among the least-severe physical limitations that categorize Paralympians. He also has competed in standard tournaments. He earned two bronze medals at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel and plans to compete there in 2013.

Leibovitz discovered table tennis as a teenager. A Haifa native who moved to New York at age 3, the adolescent Leibovitz often ran away from home or was kicked out by his father, Ernest.

“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.”

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, 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-feet-4 — and his right arm’s being shorter than his 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.”

The sport is now Leibovitz’s livelihood. He works for SPiN New York, a table tennis center in Manhattan. 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.

Sponsorship deals with the Stiga table tennis equipment company and United Airlines help, and Leibovitz receives USOC stipends and health insurance.

Leibovitz 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.

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