MN Paralympic table tennis gold medalist shares secret weapon

Facing his father across the table for several hours each week for as long as he can remember, Ian Seidenfeld started playing recreational ping pong at 5 years old. By 2021, he had grown to be a Paralympic gold medalist, with a true love of table tennis.

"I think because it’s so complex," says Ian. "There’s so many things to learn, you don’t get bored doing the same thing like if I was trying to run, put one foot in front of the other. Here, I get to think about spin, how to react, and how to beat the opponent. There’s always someone new to try and overcome."

Like Ian's father and grandfather, the Seidenfelds have overcome plenty of obstacles. Born with pseudoachondroplasia dwarfism, which results in limited bone growth, they each stand at about 4-feet. Mitch Seidenfeld, Ian's father, recalls how learning table tennis from his dad, who was a teaching pro, changed his life as a teenager.

"Table tennis came at a time when I was discovering I have some limitations," said Mitch. "It really became the activity that helped me develop and build my self-esteem through those tough years I wasn’t able to play sports in high school."

Mitch went on to compete in the Paralympics in 1992, 1996, and 2008, earning four medals, two of them gold. He’s also in the table tennis Hall of Fame.

In addition to being credited with building programs and helping grow the sport around the world, Mitch continues to take the greatest pride in coaching, including his son. Yet quietly worried about the possibility of an opponent playing to their weakness. In the match for Ian to qualify for the Paris Paralympics, it happened for the first time in both their competitive careers.

"My physical disability being that I’m shorter, and I have shorter limbs, opponents have a strategy where they serve very short on the table," Ian said. "It is a very difficult thing to return the serve and play out the point."

Luckily, his dad had created this homemade extension. Ian was able to attach it to his paddle, reach the ball and keep the match going. After a lot of arguing with Paralympic officials, Mitch earned them a big victory. Their extension is now approved for use this summer in Paris.

"A lot of people would prefer me not to be able to use it, and have an easy win," said Ian.

"In his case, there’s so much more at stake now," Mitch said. "There’s more money, there’s bigger prestige when you win a gold medal than when I was competing. So now these players internationally are willing to do anything to win, even if it means playing out the point and serving short, so he can’t reach it."

As part of his practice, Ian has become an expert at taking the wood extension on and off mid-play just in case he needs it. They are all part of his goal in trying to earn another gold medal, and add to the table tennis legacy of this father-son coaching team.

"I think the ultimate goal is just to say I’m better than him as a player," Ian said. "But where I’m at now, I definitely know I’m not better than he was at his best."

"We’ll never play at our peaks together, so we’ll never know for sure, but he has better skills than I had and as he gets a little more experience, I’m sure he’ll be a much stronger player than I was," Mitch said.