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‘Hard work beats talent:’ Meet the 20-year-old Orthodox table tennis phenom battling discrimination and aiming for the Olympics

Estee Ackerman, a Yeshiva University senior, beat Rafael Nadal at ping pong as a preteen and is nationally ranked in her sport — and she’s just getting started

Estee Ackerman, a 20-year-old Yeshiva University senior and a nationally ranked table tennis athlete, hopes to pursue a career in public speaking — a passion she developed on the court, because so many other athletes were curious to hear her story as an Orthodox athlete. 

What she’s learned in her years on the table tennis circuit: “Hard work beats talent.” 

“When someone works hard for something they want physically and emotionally,” Ackerman said, “they can achieve real greatness.”

That work has been harder for her than for most. She’s faced discrimination and exclusion in her sport since she first picked it up as a child, most recently at this year’s national table tennis championships, during which her onetime trainer, the mother of her doubles partner, accused her of being “disgusting” and “unprofessional” over her modest dress — a tirade that attracted international coverage.

Ackerman began playing table tennis when she was 8. Her father, who was concerned by the increasing social dominance of electronics, got Ackerman and her brother started in the sport as a way to create “some interactive family time.” 

Part of the reason he chose table tennis: It has a low injury level, which makes it ideal for young athletes.

The family’s investment in the sport quickly deepened. “My dad was upset that there weren’t many Orthodox athletes, so we decided to take pingpong to the next level,” Ackerman said. At her first tournament, which she played alongside her brother, they “were humiliated,” she said, laughing. “We were not as good as we thought.” 

Ackerman persisted and improved. By 2013, she had earned a sponsorship from the table tennis company Killer Spin. The company had a good relationship with Nike, which represented Rafael Nadal, one of the most famous tennis champions in the world. 

The two companies thought it would be fun to watch Nadal go up against a preteen girl, and arranged a “friendly game” between him and Ackerman, then 11, which she won.

That same year, Nadal won the U.S. Open Championships — his 13th Grand Slam tennis title. For Ackerman, it was exciting to be able to say that she’d beaten a “champion.”

As she progressed further into her athletic career, Ackerman experienced obstacles in her ability to participate in tournaments because of their schedules, which frequently interfered with Shabbat.

In a 2016 interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ackerman said she knew “this situation was going to happen to me one day… I had to choose my religion or the love of the sport. On Shabbat, to be in my uniform, to go down to be competing in a national tournament, this is not in the spirit of Shabbos. This is not what Hashem would want me to do.”

And while Ackerman is used to navigating conflicts between her religion and her sport, the challenges she’s faced as an Orthodox athlete reached new heights last month when her doubles partner’s mother, former Olympic tennis star Fei Ming Tong, repeatedly cursed at her publicly and privately before pulling her daughter, Lucy Chen, out of the doubles event in which Chen and Ackerman were set to compete — leaving Ackerman partnerless, and forcing her disqualification.

The words stung. Ackerman said that they “put me to tears, ruining the entire tournament for me.” But they didn’t necessarily surprise her. “Something didn’t seem right, and then out of nowhere, Tong called me on the phone and began verbally abusing me.” Later, when Ackerman met her doubles partner for their game, Tong began insulting her again.

Ackerman is still trying to make sense of the event. “It happened for absolutely no reason,” she said, “and I think she just didn’t want her daughter to play with me.”

The harassment and humiliation Ackerman has encountered has only cemented her religious values, she said. But while Ackerman is a boundary-breaking athlete, she’s also a 20-year-old figuring out where her interests lie and what she wants out of life. Table tennis is far from her only passion: She loves studying Torah, which she sees as “sustaining a connection with God,” and even participated in her high school’s basketball team.

Now, Ackerman’s sights are set on the 2024 summer Olympics in Paris. She’s excited to see “how high I can rank,” she said. “In 2016,” she added, “they called me the first Orthodox Jew to ever try out for the U.S. Olympics, then I became the first Orthodox Jew to win the Junior Olympics in Texas.”

“It is my passion to inspire others,” Ackerman said. “There are so many kids who need motivation and inspiration. I hope that my story as an Orthodox athlete can inspire others to go after what they want.”

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