sports

Kings of the court: How two IU brothers are chasing their Olympic dreams



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Freshman Sharon Alguetti, right, practices table tennis Aug. 8 with his brother, Gal, at the Student Recreational Sports Center. The brothers are trying to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this year. CORRECTION: A previous version of this caption misidentified the brothers. The IDS regrets this error. James Brosher

Four years ago, there were two boys trying to etch their names into history as Olympic table tennis royalty.

At 14, fraternal twins Sharon and Gal Alguetti would have been the youngest U.S. Olympians since Michael Phelps.

There were three spots on the Olympic team. After qualifying matches, Sharon was fourth, and Gal slipped further down the list. Sharon finished as an alternate and wouldn’t travel to Rio de Janeiro to compete for his country.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics provide another opportunity.

The brothers are now in their second semester at IU. They’re both ranked in the top 10 in the United States of America Table Tennis rankings. Sharon is No. 5, and Gal is No. 7.

The qualifying matches for the summer Olympics are set for Feb. 27-March 1. 

There are two openings on the United States Olympic team. There are two brothers hoping to seize them.

***

Sharon and Gal held paddles in their hands as soon as they could peek over the table.

Their father, Eyal Alguetti, introduced the boys to table tennis in their elementary years. They immediately fell in love with the game.

Eyal played table tennis his whole life and trained local talent. He passed it on to his older son Adar and then eventually to Sharon and Gal. Eyal guided them as a coach.

The boys were born in the United States but moved to Israel when they were infants. They lived in Ramat Hasharon, a coastal city of about 45,000 people in the western part of the country.

Table tennis is far from a staple in Israel. Early in their lives, Sharon and Gal spent a majority of their time on the soccer field. Eventually, they had to focus on one sport. They knew their family would support table tennis, so they chose to make it their priority.

“Winning is like a drug,” Sharon said. 

Soon after they took up table tennis, their life in Israel was uprooted.

When they were 9, the Alguetti family decided to pack up their belongings and head back to the country where their sons were born.

They headed to Tenafly, New Jersey, a borough of less than 15,000 residents across the Hudson River from Yonkers.

When they arrived in the new country, all they spoke was Hebrew. But they still had each other.

During recess in fourth grade, Sharon and Gal watched their classmates stand around and talk. In Israel, everyone would play. Sharon said he almost lost his mind. He knew he had to do something. So, he put together a bag of athletic balls to take outside. Soon, there were 40 kids playing soccer.

The brothers could speak English fluently by the time they were in eighth grade.

“It was about getting confident and making mistakes,” Sharon said. “Learning from them. People didn’t judge when we made mistakes.”

As more athletic opportunities surfaced in the U.S., table tennis became even more prominent in their lives. There were better facilities, veteran coaches and high-level competition compared to Israel. Sharon and Gal took advantage of the new resources. They both made the under-13 U.S. national team. 

“Once you make it, you don’t want to give up your spot,” Sharon said. 

Every day, one of their parents would pick them up from school and drive them to a training center an hour away for a three hour practice. Then, eat. Homework. Bed. Repeat.

They fine-tuned their backhands, forehands and serves until it became muscle memory. Sometimes their workouts would include jumping rope for 40 minutes straight.

Those long nights made for countless trophies and exuberant fist pumps.

It also took them across the globe. They played in Colombia, Argentina, China and El Salvador.

“It showed me how life differs,” Gal said. “I talked to people and learned about their way of living. It helped me grow as a person.”

Shortly after moving to the U.S., the brothers’ game began to attract attention from sponsors such as JOOLA, a table tennis company. They approached the brothers about signing a contract after a tournament. It was more validation for the up-and-coming prodigies. It also took some financial strain off of the expensive shoes, paddles and athletic wear.

“It was a sign that someone had faith in me,” Sharon said. “It just motivated me more. If they put trust into me, then I can provide the wins and titles to give back to them.”

And so the boys continued, their skills developing with each tournament victory.

In 2016, Sharon made the junior boys and men’s national team. He’s qualified for the last five junior world championships. He was in a tournament that was broadcast on ESPN.

Gal was a U.S. national champion in the under-13 boys division. He was the youngest-ever participant in the North America Tour Final.

As a duo, they were U.S. National Men’s Doubles Champions in 2017.

Articles filled the internet about the brothers. Among others, NBC, USA Today and the Team U.S.A website detailed Sharon and Gal's prowess. Headlines read: “USA’s Brotherhood of Table Tennis Ready to Take on France” and “Sharon Alguetti a Class Act in LYTTC August Open Final”.

“We want to be the best here,” Sharon said.

***

The second that the crimson envelope was delivered to the Alguetti household in Tenafly, the decision was made. It was the Kelley School of Business. It was the Hutton Honors College. The brothers weren’t going to turn that opportunity away.

Since they have been on campus, almost all of their time is consumed by table tennis or school work. Gal brings his laptop to tournaments to work on assignments. Sharon hopes to become an owner of a bank one day. There’s no bingeing Netflix or spending endless hours on social media.

When they moved into the Kelley Living Learning Center, everything was new again. They lived in Eigenmann Hall, but it didn't feel like home. It wasn’t Israel.

But they had each other. If Sharon needed someone to practice with, he had Gal. If Gal needed help in accounting, he had Sharon. 

“That’s been a big part of our lives, having each other's back,” Sharon said. “You can only do so many things alone. It's good to have someone behind you.”

The brothers' contrasting personalities show through their playing styles.

Sharon is more talkative. On the court, he likes to play with flair and take risks. He’s always happy to show off his flashy tricks.

Gal is more reserved and quiet. During competition, he’s fine with sitting back in the corner of the court and making his opponent frantically run around.

Both feel comfortable with how they go about their craft. And their skill sets complement each other when they play doubles.

They wanted to carry their talents onto campus. Sharon and Gal decided to join the Table Tennis Club at IU at the beginning of the year. They have already led the team to a Upper Midwest Divisional Tournament Championship. 

“What amazed me was that they are very mature players,” teammate and graduate student Aron Frank said. “They basically knew exactly what type of effort and tactics they needed to beat their opponents. I noticed that when they both needed to step it up, they could get on another level.”

Table tennis club adviser and IU music professor Luke Gillespie said the brothers are among the best players he’s ever seen. Gillespie said he doesn’t feel he can provide any coaching for them, only encouragement.

Sharon and Gal didn’t have to invest their time in the team at IU. They have a car on campus and could have driven themselves to individual events. 

“They really want the team to do well,” Gillespie said. “When they play for IU, they’re doing it because they want the IU table tennis team to succeed, and I appreciate that.”

When Sharon and Gal saw an IU teammate struggle during the regional tournament in late January, they called a timeout and shared some advice. 

That guidance will pay dividends as the team eyes the national championships this spring.

But before that, Sharon and Gal have some unfinished business to take care of.

*** 

Four years later, there are two men playing table tennis in the Student Recreational Sports Center. They’re not 14 anymore.

The Alguetti brothers are here every day.

They’re here to prepare for the upcoming Olympic Trials on Feb. 27. The three-day event, with more than 50 listed competitors, in Santa Monica, California, will feature some of the most talented players in the country. Sharon is seeded sixth and Gal is eighth. Two round-robin stages will decide who will represent the country. The brothers want to add Tokyo to the list of cities where they’ve competed.

Gal is tall and lanky, his wingspan stretching through his red and blue JOOLA shirt to reach shots in every direction. He bends his arm, holding the paddle with his wrist cocked in front of his body. He's waiting to lurch into action like a coiled spring. Sharon’s muscle shows through his black and neon green top and displays strength behind his swings. 

They both wind their arms back in powerful strokes, sending the ball bounding toward the opposite end of the court. There seems to be a magnetic force between the two paddles, the ball a hypnotic echo of itself. 

When Sharon serves, the ball has a mind of its own. He tosses it high into the air and lets it plunge toward the ground. At the last second, he slices his paddle right above the table, sending the paste-colored sphere whirling over the net. It dips one way, dives another. He somehow makes the ball disappear under his opponent's paddle. 

Sharon and Gal have also refined their diets to take better care of their bodies. They’ve been vegan for over a month now.

That means no more M&M’s or gummy bears. Save the chicken and steak. Throw out the cheese.

Enter chickpeas, baby carrots, peanuts and hummus. If there’s a sweet smell coming from Eigenmann, it's probably Sharon making vegan pesto.

“It’s dessert or winning a final,” Sharon said. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

But they see it as part of the job. They’re professionals. The sport is still fun for them though.

In the 2016 trials, Sharon and Gal were 14. Most of their competitors were at least two years older. Most had already hit their growth spurts. The brothers were high school students balancing studies and training. Some of their competition quit their jobs and took time off school. A majority of their opponents were men.  

Now the brothers are 18. They've hit their growth spurts. They’re faster, stronger and quicker than they were before. They didn’t need to drop out of school to train. 

“Both of our mentality is: If we lose, we’re back to college life,” Sharon said. ”If we win, it's the same life but better.”

They’re the Israeli kids that found promise in a new country. They’re adapters. They’re a table tennis enthusiast's son. They’re future businessmen. 

They’re brothers.

And that won’t change with the outcome on March 1.

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