CEMENTED: The Success Story of Seymour Rifkind
“I will be the 1969 State All-Around Champion and State Parallel Champion.”
These are the words that 16-year-old Seymour Rifkind etched into wet cement on a hot summer night in 1967. This was the same cement that he used to anchor the parallel bars into the ground that he built in his backyard. “I had a lot of my teammates come over and practice on the bars,” the International Gymnastic Competitor Gold and Bronze medal winner fondly recalled.
“It was there for everyone to see. I shared that goal and dream with others. When I had injuries, when I was tired, burnt out, didn’t feel like working out, they would be the ones who would say, ‘Hey, remember you said you would be State Champion?’”
Two years later, Seymour Rifkind became the 1969 State All-Around Champion and State Parallel Champion.
“If you do everything you promise yourself, then your belief system is extremely powerful. In your mind the goal is already accomplished.” It’s this exact mantra that has propelled Rifkind from a High School standout in the field of gymnastics into an international superstar.
The Strength of Family
With a DIY mindset and drive to succeed, Rifkind has parlayed that success by creating his own marketing firm, becoming a best-selling author and founding the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association (IPTPA).
The need to succeed wasn’t something that Seymour Rifkind just woke up and decided one day. It was a gene he was born with. As the first-born son of a Holocaust survivor, Seymour understood the importance of family from an early age.
“There are many studies and books written on children of Holocaust survivors,” recalled the eldest Rifkind boy, “One trait is a strong motivating factor to be successful not just for themselves, but their parents.”
An estimated 11 million people died during the mass execution known as the Holocaust. This number includes many of the family members of Albert Rifkind. “My father lost his siblings. Two other brothers. He felt guilty for surviving. He felt his older brother was smarter. His younger brother was the kindest. My father was the troublemaker.”
Coping with the loss of losing his beloved family, Albert Rifkind was determined to provide the family he created with everything they could ever need. The guilt-ridden survivor emigrated to the United States without knowing a lick of English. He never passed the 10th grade, instead turning to the workforce to provide for his family.
This exhibition of work ethic and sacrifice paired with his father’s stories of survival resonated with a young Seymour.
“It became extremely important to me to make him happy, make him proud. I was the first born Rifkind son, and I took that as a major responsibility. The Rifkinds had survived another generation.”
Although the Rifkind brood had everything they needed thanks to the sweat of their father’s brow, there was little money to be had. The reality of their situation as a poor family in the 1960’s was that the young men in the Rifkind household wouldn’t be able to attend college. Therefore, they would have to enlist in the army. This was during the height of the Vietnam War. “I knew people that graduated, turned 18, went to Nam and in six months they were gone.”
As Seymour’s peers found themselves being drafted, the savvy teen needed a plan that would get him into college and away from the battle lines. Aware of how war ravaged his father’s family was, Seymour sought a path to freedom through extracurricular activities. It was during this formative time that the driven teenager discovered his ticket to higher education: gymnastics.
“In PE class I did the most pull-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups. I was a small guy with innately good strength in proportions of my body.” It was these characteristics that led him to become a standout on the parallel bars. As his aspirations to compete at the college level became clear to coaches, the Head Coach at Michigan State University said, “You’re a talented kid. A good parallel bar specialist, but to get a scholarship to college, you need to compete in all the events.”
That was all Seymour needed to hear.
Hard Work's Reward
With two years to graduate, Seymour Rifkind began the intense training that has become his trademark. There were five events that he needed to excel in to become the well-rounded star athlete he dreamed of being. They were parallel bars, rings, high bar, floor exercise, pommel horse.
“Pommel horse would be my greatest challenge, so I borrowed one from the school. I took it home and set it up in the basement. A friend came over and I told him that I wasn't quitting until I did two circles around the horse.” Saying it out loud makes it a reality. With blistered hands, Seymour refused to come up for dinner when his mom called. His friend went home.
Finally, his dad came home from work at 11:30 that night. He came downstairs and said to Seymour, “What is this? You’ve had enough! You’ve been doing it for 9 hours already. Enough is enough!” Before heading back upstairs, his father turned around one last time. “Ugh. You’re so damn stubborn.”
Stubborn indeed. At 2:30 AM, Seymour finally nailed the two circles.
It was during this time that Seymour built his parallel bars in the backyard. “I got pipes, found oars from a row boat, dug holes and poured cement.”
And it was in that cement, that he cemented his legacy. Two years after etching his goals and aspirations into the foundation, the soon-to-be graduate stamped his ticket to college. The rest is history.
Upon graduating college, Seymour Rifkind would go on to become an International Gymnastic Competitor Gold and Bronze medal winner. Acknowledging the example set by his father, the advice given by a college coach and the encouragement of his peers, Seymour realized that he didn’t accomplish his goals alone.
“It’s a mixture of success and luck. There’s a lot of people who work hard, but they’re not successful and don’t go the right way. You need to surround yourself with those who share your visions. Put forth the work ethic and sacrifice.” The ability to separate himself from the tunnel-vision athlete and step into the role of a leader who sees the big picture is what led him to become a coach. Rif competed in an Iron Man Triathlon, and using the wisdom that was passed onto him, he's since coached over 25 All-Americans and worked with five Olympic gymnasts.
Following his successful sports career, Seymour Rifkind met athletic retirement with yet another journey. He started his own marketing firm. Through this endeavor he's been able to share his visions and work ethic with like-minded people. Seymour’s success has bred the success of many others, and continues to do so with his book, 21st Century Samurai: The Secret Path to Success and Fulfillment.
Much like his father, Seymour prides himself in his ability to provide for his family. He wants his children to live an even better life than he did. Spending quality time with those he loves is something near and dear to his heart.
A New Dream for Pickleball
“I’ve always been a big sports nut and had season tickets to the Bears for 30 years. I had a goal. I wanted to visit all the different NFL stadiums, but only when they played the Bears.” He loved the opportunity to see new communities, meet different people, but most of all, allow for some quality time with his wife and two sons.
It was during this time that fate met Seymour Rifkind yet again. After taking in a Chicago Bears vs. Carolina Panthers game, Seymour looked at his team’s schedule and saw they were going to be in Atlanta next week to take on the Falcons. Instead of flying back to Chicago, the Rifkind brood stayed local. He decided to visit some friends who lived at The Villages in Florida.
It was then that Seymour was introduced to pickleball. “15 minutes, I was hooked into the game.'
Upon heading back to Chicago, Seymour couldn’t keep his mind off the sport he knew so little about. He attempted to seek out other players in the community, and found a couple of park districts where he could play pick-up games. “All different levels of players. No real drilling. No instruction. Just go out and have fun.”
Having a tennis background, Seymour couldn’t help but pick up the fundamentals relatively quickly. However, it was that exact tennis background that made him realize there were a few bad habits he needed to drop. Driving the ball at other beginners, Seymour thought his tennis background was the secret to pickleball success. That was until he entered his first pickleball tournament.
“I got beat up real bad. I saw people doing shots I never attempted before.” And then he thought to himself, “There’s obviously a better way to play than what I am doing.” Like always, Seymour sought out like-minded people with more experience. He needed a better understanding of the fundamentals.
“I recognized right away that this is a great sport, but there was no formal instruction taking place.” The same man who as a young boy wrote his dreams in cement now had a new goal in sight. He was going to set up a commission that would agree on the fundamentals of pickleball. Once everyone was on the same page, those people would train the teachers who will train the pickleball players of tomorrow. The long-term goal? To make pickleball an Olympic sport in the next 20 years.
“In the summer of 2015, I had a simple strategic plan. We need to do what’s best for the sport. We needed people more qualified than me to buy into this.” Seymour called a meeting between top players in November of 2015 at the Pickleball Nationals. He shared his vision. “They responded positively and quickly. A lot of other people saw the need to get this done.” Once the like-minded people were on board, the IPTPA was born.
One year later, IPTPA has certified over 100 instructors, with 235 in the system at various stages of training. They are doing it consistently. They are doing it the right way.
“A year ago when I first started thinking about this, if we could get 100 instructors, it’s an obtainable objective. And we did.” Now, the sky is the limit. Heading into 2017, one of the initiatives of the IPTPA is to spread into Europe and Asia. Seymour recently spoke to federations in India about getting IPTPA directors over there. They plan to assist these countries and give them better equipment.
'Some countries don’t have the funding needed to afford some of these things. If everyone in the pickleball community, manufacturers of paddles and balls, if we all get together, we can put together a program to help developing countries enjoy pickleball.
After all, you need competing countries if you are going to have an Olympic sport. With a DIY athlete with the mindset of Seymour Rifkind at the helm, this can become a reality. “The sum of all good helps. Being unselfish and loving the sport makes them share with each other.”
This is exactly why Seymour Rifkind’s legacy has been one of a success. It’s the same reason why his success story can help cement pickleball’s Olympic aspirations.