Orthodox Athlete Missing the Olympics
Despite her Olympic dreams being dashed, Estee Ackerman is still an Olympic champion proudly representing the Jewish people.
When Glenn Ackerman bought his daughter Estee her first table tennis set when she was 8, he couldn't even see her above the table. "All I could see was her paddle and she would hit the ball with unerring accuracy," Glen said in an exclusive Aish.com interview. It became obvious that Estee was exceptional at the sport. Each day after school, Estee would spend her evening practicing, improving her skills until she was a world-class player while still a child.
Soon, Estee Ackerman was the top ranked girl player in New York state, and one of the highest-ranking child players in the US. Her religious observance didn’t prevent her from thriving as a player. Her high school day lasted from 8am until 6pm, learning Jewish and general studies, and Estee would then spend hours practicing and honing her game. She played wearing a skirt and couldn’t share in meals in non-kosher restaurants with other players. Despite these minor differences, Estee always felt accepted by her fellow players.
In 2013 state table tennis officials invited her to play a fun match against Raphael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players in the world. Estee was eleven years old at the time and beat the tennis champ. Since then, her skills and fame have only grown.
Estee tried out for the US Olympic Team in 2016, when she was 14. As an observant Jew she was at a disadvantage in the tryouts; athletes had three days to compete - Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. “The tryouts were single-elimination tournaments,” Glenn explains. Since Estee couldn’t play on Shabbat, she had only Thursday and Friday to prove her worth. Estee came in 14th. “I felt privileged to be part of the group trying out,” Estee recalls. “I was at a disadvantage but at the age of 14, I was proud to be at that level.” Glenn believes that Estee became the first Orthodox Jew to try out for a US Olympic team.
"I said to myself, this situation was going to happen to me one day," Estee told JTA for a 2016 profile. "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 the spirit of Shabbos. This is not what God would want me to do."
After 2016, Estee didn't give up on her Olympic dreams. The thought that she might try out for the 2020 US Olympic team sustained her as she continued to spend hours practicing her sport.
After graduating from high school in 2019, Estee went to Israel for a post high school gap year studying in Michlala Jerusalem College. She got in touch with Jerusalem’s table tennis clubs and is continuing her grueling practice schedule, practicing four days a week, in order to keep in shape for the US Olympic tryouts. She’s been playing for Jerusalem’s Hapoel table tennis team and helped them rise to first place in the country. “Her coaches think she’s one of the top ten players in Israel,” her father said.
In recent weeks, Estee’s Olympic dreams have been dashed. The 2020 Olympic Trials in table tennis are being held in Santa Monica February 27 through March 1, over Shabbat. In order to be considered for the team this time around, athletes will have to play all three days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When Estee applied to have an altered schedule and play all her games on Thursday and Friday, the answer was no.
“It’s definitely frustrating," Estee said. She understands that the people running the Olympic trials must have reasons for denying her request.
Even though her Olympic hopes lie in ruins, Estee is pleased she’s become an inspiration for other athletes and other Jews around the world. “I’ve received phone calls, emails, letters from people from all walks of life,” Estee said. "Jews from all different backgrounds have told me that they've been inspired to strengthen their Jewish observance and do more Torah learning."
“I’ve learned that you get repaid whenever you make a Kiddush Hashem (set a good example as a Jew). It can be five years in the future, or ten years, or in the World to Come. I hope to inspire others to stick with their dreams and shoot for the stars. And keep being Jewish your number one priority.”