By day, Estee Ackerman is a diligent, unassuming, 14-year-old freshman at Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Holliswood, Queens. The bus picks her up at her home in West Hempstead at 7:15 a.m. and she returns around 6 p.m.
At night, the paddle comes out, and Ackerman’s transformation into table tennis prodigy is complete. Since she first picked up a paddle six years ago, Ackerman has never fit the mold of a traditional table tennis star.
“I’m training five times per week for multiple hours. When you come home, especially after Yeshiva, it’s not easy,” said Ackerman, who comes from a family of Orthodox Jews and takes a dual curriculum of general and Judaic classes. “But to me, to be good at anything, you have to put in countless hours.
“I try to do a lot of my homework in the car rides and when I’m at the table tennis clubs, there’s breaks sometimes and then I do some work over there.”
Ackerman is one of 16 players who will compete in the 2016 USA Olympic Table Tennis Team Trials, which take place Thursday through Saturday at the Greensboro Sportsplex in North Carolina. In order to compete, a player must be a member of the United States Table Tennis Association and must be eligible to represent the United States in the Olympics.
“In sports, anything can happen,” said Ackerman, who is the 14th seed, “but I know I’m not a favorite [to win].”
Twelve of the 16 participants are 18 or younger. Rachel Sung, 11, of Campbell, California, is the youngest.
The three-day, single-elimination tournaments that feature some of the best players in the United States will begin Thursday. Three winners — one will be crowned each day — will advance to a North American Olympic qualifier in Toronto in April with a chance to represent the United States in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in the sport more commonly known as ping-pong.
“She has a great feel for the sport,” Ackerman’s coach, Michael Zhao, said.
But Ackerman will have only two opportunities, not three. She said that she will not compete on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
In December 2012, Ackerman advanced to the final round of the National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas. But when she learned she had to compete on a Saturday, when nonspiritual physical activity is prohibited until sundown, she withdrew from the tournament.
“She’s called the Sandy Koufax of table tennis,” her father, Glenn Ackerman, said, referring to the Los Angeles Dodgers great who famously refused to pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. “She’s the only member of the United States Table Tennis Association, which numbers 10,000, who was Orthodox. And she gave up the chance to win a championship for her religion.”
“Judaism will always be the No. 1 priority for me,” Estee Ackerman said.
When Ackerman was 8, her father wanted to find a way to bond with his two children that didn’t include electronics. After just a few weeks of playing for fun, “you definitely realized that she could be something great one day,” said Estee’s brother, Akiva — a 17-year-old senior at Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere — who also has won at the national level.
“It’s similar to the piano,” Glenn Ackerman said. “If you sit and practice the piano, day and night, your fingers will know the exact notes to bounce from one to the other. She practiced hours on hours on end.”
Estee competed in her first tournament when she was 9 — “They couldn’t even see me. I was just a paddle going back and forth,” she said — and has been turning heads and attracting celebrity matchups ever since.
She is ranked No. 8 nationally among girls 15-and-under, No. 64 among all U.S. women and won national tournaments in Michigan in 2012 and Las Vegas in 2013. She’s beaten tennis star Rafael Nadal.
“He wasn’t bad,” Ackerman says with a smile. “Pretty good, I should say.”
She dominated chef Bobby Flay on the “Rachael Ray” show. She trounced New York Cosmos assistant coach Alecko Eskandarian.
“When I play adults, they find it funny,” Ackerman said. “How can a little kid beat the big adults? They never see it coming.”
At its core, Ackerman’s story is one of family. Her coaches, friends and relatives have her back, win or lose. Olympics or no Olympics.
“My family is the reason I got into this in the first place,” Ackerman said, “and their support is my biggest motivation. With them behind me, how can I stop?”