NORTH SALEM, N.Y.— Doing what he loves didn’t have to be at the Olympic level, but North Salem senior Matthew Needle made the commitment to perfecting his craft at table tennis and hasn’t looked back since.
“I really loved it from the beginning,” Needle said. “It’s something that I always had a real passion to do. Nobody was necessarily forcing me to do it.”
He began playing in world events in 2014 and participated in the 2016 North American Men’s Table Tennis Olympic Trials in Greensboro, N.C., in February as a sophomore in high school.
Needle weeded through various single-elimination trial tournaments around the country before qualifying for the Olympic trials and reaching the quarterfinal before finally falling.
Back in 2012, a younger Needle attended the Olympic Table Tennis trials in Cary, N.C., to watch with the goal already in mind alongside his uncle.
“I worked really hard for those next four years and I made the Olympic trials in 2016,” Needle said. “Once I saw that, that was my drive. Throughout the course of three or four years I went from nothing to playing at the world level. A lot of that just came from wanting to do it. It worked out because I wanted to make it happen that way.”
The aspiring champion began to train at a club named Westchester Table Tennis in Pleasantville before embarking on a world journey of training in countries such as China, Japan and Germany.
Table tennis is a very fast and active sport which requires a lot of physical training off the table.
“Every country has its own style of training,” Needle said, “so traveling around the world to practice is essential to staying competitive at such a high level.”
Everything started when Needle was a young boy going to The Bedford Pool where he and his family swam. He just started playing ping-pong there before sparking his interest after playing with a few lifeguards and his family.
When his junior year of high school arrived, it became tougher to keep playing table tennis at the world level. Needle missed 65 days of school one year as his schoolwork began to pile up.
In the two years after his Olympic stint, Needle the student has still practiced at Westchester Table Tennis, but hasn’t been on the world circuit despite still partaking in a few national events.
He was paid to attend and play in an event in Chicago for two days when his name was among the top rankings in the United States.
Each match of table tennis is played up to 11 points and depending upon the round it is best of five or seven matches.
To demonstrate and spur popularity to the growing sport, Needle gave an exhibition and some instruction alongside his friend Courage Nanevie of Ghana last week in physical education class at the high school.
For a two-week period, Needle actually taught the sport while playing with the students.
It is all a part of Needle’s training camp that he designed for his senior OPTIONS project of teaching table tennis to every class that is interested, and so far, every class has been interested.
He is interning with his gym teacher named Mary Sireci as the school district likes the idea so much that it plans to make table tennis a unit every year for children to choose from.
“It’s been really great,” Needle said of teaching students. “Coming into it, it seemed like nobody was interested because they didn’t know what table tennis was at all. Once I did the exhibition with my friend (Courage), everyone was amazed by it and wanted to do it.”
The school is already planning to bring Needle back next year to play with students recreationally while teaching the unit to new students.
His family wanted him to take a year after high school to train for a return to the Olympics, but Needle was thinking of attending community college while staying at his local club to practice.
He is looking for a loose schedule before transferring to another university where he can either play for the school or at a club nearby.
In terms of academics, Needle has an interest in engineering but may look to train internationally once again.
One thing that is certain is that he will continue playing the sport he loves somewhere.