by Faygie Levy Holt – chabad.org
That a Shabbat-observant teen on her way to the 2020 Olympics took home the gold for the Under-20 Girls’ Doubles with her partner, Linda Shu, from Texas is an impressive feat. But what made the victory truly extraordinary is that she was competing in the high-energy, high-stress match on Asarah B’Tevet, a Jewish fast day.
Estee Ackerman, 17, explains to Chabad.org that she had a strategy to make it through the day of competition at the U.S. Open in table tennis. She focused on hoarding calories before the fast. She ramped up her training on Monday night, when she could still eat, and didn’t have any practice sessions on Tuesday morning before the Under-20 Doubles meet began.
“Nothing was going to stop me from a gold medal. I realized I put much work and dedication into this and, baruch Hashem [thank G‑d], I’m 17 and in good shape,” Estee notes, adding that she was careful not to overdo it when she wasn’t playing.
“I truly felt Hashem was with me for every point,” she says.
The doubles’ victory wasn’t Estee’s only impressive feat at the U.S. Open. On Dec. 19, she beat out No. 1 seed and veteran table-tennis champ Lily Yip to win the Women’s Hardbat Singles’ event competition in Orlando, Fla. “For me, being able to not only compete against her, and win and claim myself as best female hardbat player in America, is something I will never forget. I treated it as one of my greatest wins in my ping-pong career.”
“Hardbat” refers to the type of racquet used in play, Estee explains, noting that her win was far from secure.
“[Yip] got the first game, and if you asked me or my father, we had a bit of a letdown because I’d lost,” says Estee. “But if you know me well, second place isn’t in my vocabulary, and I go into tournaments with the mindset of one goal: a gold medal.”
‘Inspired by Her Success and Her Commitment’
Estee says her motivation to succeed in table tennis come in part from the public reaction to an event that happened back in 2012. That year, when she was just 11, the youngster decided to forfeit a match rather than play on Shabbat.
“I was amazed and humbled that year when I got letters and calls from people I didn’t know—people who were Reform, Conservative, religious—telling me that they were inspired to be more involved,” she recalls. “Who would have thought ping-pong would led to such a thing?
“We are to be part of the Jewish nation,” says Estee. “People sometimes forget how big a zechus [‘reward’] it is to be a bas Yisrael [the ‘daughter of Israel’], bas Melech [the ‘daughter of the King’], and that was really my motivation to keep going.
“There are ups and downs, and definitely challenges” in pursuing her dream sport, she acknowledges, adding that those challenges bring her closer to G‑d.
During her week in Orlando, Estee spent Shabbat with Chabad of Orlando, where she addressed synagogue members following Saturday-morning services.
“The community members and guests who were present were so inspired by her success, but even more so, by her commitment to Yiddishkeit and her decision to place Shabbat before anything else,” said Rabbi Yosef Konikov, co-director of Chabad of Orlando with his wife, Chani. “One of the members, David Segel, spoke about his own table-tennis experience and how he played in his youth against some very famous players, including the Seemiller brothers [table-tennis world champions Ricky and Danny Seemiller, the latter who is also in the sport’s U.S. Hall of Fame]. He then noted how impressed he was to hear from a shomer Shabbat teenager, who spoke so proudly of her Judaism and her merit to sanctify G‑d’s name while doing the sport she’s so passionate about.”
As 2019 dawns, Estee has her eyes on some more regional table-tennis competitions in her path to the Olympics. For now, though, she’s focused on finishing her senior year in high school (where she plays on the school basketball team), going to Israel in the fall to continue her Jewish education and encouraging other people to follow their passion.