Estee Ackerman knows what it’s like to stand out.
She was about 8 years old when she walked into her first ping-pong club, New York Table Tennis in Flushing. She remembered that pretty much everyone around her was Asian, speaking in Chinese and Korean dialects that day – the sport is hugely popular in both China and South Korea – and Ackerman, an Orthodox Jewish girl with her own container of Kosher food, appeared at first as something of an interloper. She wasn’t even that good, she said, smiling, and after getting thoroughly whooped, she left “humiliated.”
It’s a testament to Ackerman, though, that she’s still standing out, though for entirely different reasons.
The high school senior, now 17, is one of the top table tennis players in the country – molded, as she was, by those mostly Chinese players at the ping-pong club; her parents, Glenn and Chanie, who enthusiastically support her, and personal coaches who hone her skills on the basement ping-pong table in the Ackerman’s West Hempstead home. Now, with the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Ackerman – currently ranked the 23rd U.S. woman in the country – has her sights set on a new goal. She wants to go to the trials, hopefully make the cut, and open this country up to the massive potential of competitive table tennis.
In December, she defeated two-time Olympian Lily Yip to win first place in the women’s hardbat division at the U.S. Open. (Hardbat, which isn’t used in the Olympics, is a racket without a sponge, which means slower speeds and less spin.)
“I don’t compete for the medals,” Ackerman said before acceptiing a citation from the Hempstead Town Board honoring her accomplishments in the sport on Feb. 5. “Trophies are not my value…But I realize, this is my message. If you’re Jewish or not, whatever it is, but if you have a passion, if you have a dream in life…I would love and always try to stress the message to younger girls of, just go for it. If you have the dedication, if you have the effort, put it into practice.”
Even if the challenges, at least at first, can seem daunting. After all, Ackerman competes while strictly adhering to the Sabbath, not playing on Friday nights or Saturday before sundown, as well as on certain Jewish holidays. Last year, she competed in the US Open Table Tennis Championship despite having to fast for one of the days (she ended up with two gold medals – one against Yip and the other in U-20 doubles – and a bronze). She doesn’t know when the 2020 Olympic Trials will be, but if they fall on a weekend, there’s always a chance she’ll have to sit down on one of the days, limiting her chances to make the cut.
But that’s fine by her, Ackerman said.
Her faith takes priority, though ping-pong does hold a cherished spot in her life. As she gears up for the trials, she’ll practice about four to five days a week, for a few hours at a time. While table tennis doesn’t necessarily favor the large or the strong, like most sports do, it does require quick reflexes, conditioning, and excellent hand-eye coordination. It’s also something that doesn’t require too much money – another great unifier that drew Ackerman to table tennis.
Along the way, she’s defied expectations, becoming an ambassador of the sport to various communities that might not otherwise have much exposure to ping-pong. She does it while still maintaining an academic schedule, playing on her school’s basketball team, and trying to maintain some semblance of a personal life, she said.
“All my competitors are home schooled,” she said. “I’m in the Yeshiva University High School for Girls that has a dual curriculum. I’m there at 8 a.m., I get home at 6 p.m. Don’t think for a second I don’t say to myself all the time, Estee, how much better would I be if I would train on Saturdays, if I would train on our holidays. Different things like that. But like I say all the time, I have my value set, with Judaism No. 1, school No. 2."
"Well, maybe school No. 3, actually, with ping-pong No. 2.”