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The Youngest Member of Team USA Aims to Be the Future of Olympic Table Tennis

Lars AndersonSenior WriterAugust 10, 2016

Kanak Jha, of the United States, returns a shot to Nima Alamian, of Iran, during a table tennis match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — It happened so fast, the moment the boy and the legend nearly touched.

It was two days before the opening ceremony, and the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team walked into an elevator in the Team USA high-rise in the athletes village. The boy lifted his sleepy brown eyes, and there he was: Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history.

The boy was thunderstruck. He giddily nudged one of his teammates on the table tennis squad and whispered, “Should I ask him for a picture?” But then, like a streaking comet, the legend was gone, striding out of the elevator and into the Brazilian afternoon.

Yet the interaction will forever be seared into the memory of 16-year-old Kanak Jha, who in April became the first-ever American of the 2000s (born June 19, 2000) to qualify for the Olympic Games. “It was sooooo cool seeing Michael Phelps,” he said. “I still can’t believe I’m on the same team as him!”

Aug 6, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Kanak Jha (USA) serves the ball to Nima Alamian (IRI) during the table tennis singles preliminary round at Riocentro. Mandatory Credit: Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports

Forget what you know about pingpong as a boozy frat party staple or junior-high after-school activity. Because once you meet Kanak Jha—and see him hit the ball like he’s trying to atomize it—you’ll realize one thing: He may very well be the young Michael Phelps of table tennis in raising the sport's profile.

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“Kanak is bringing a lot of attention to the sport, and he’s going to help grow the sport moving forward because he’s so talented at a such a young age,” said Timothy Wang, a veteran of the U.S. table tennis team. “He’s exciting to watch. He could change everything.”

Jha’s journey to Rio—where he is the youngest-ever male Olympian of any nation to compete in table tennis—began a decade ago when he walked into the India Community Center in Milpitas, California. The six-year-old picked up a table tennis paddle and, though he could barely see above the table, started swinging away, the game feeling as natural to him as golf was to a knee-high Tiger Woods.

Jha’s parents, who were born in India, set up a table in their garage. Little Kanak would spend hours alone with a bucket of balls in the garage’s dim light, practicing his serve until his mom called him in for dinner. Other times he’d play his older sister Prachi—also a skilled player, whom Kanak had carefully watched as a toddler—deep into the night. He quickly developed off-the-charts hand-eye coordination.

At 13, he entered every age category at the U.S. national tournament in Las Vegas. Possessing a blistering forehand, he compiled a record of 27-1, his only defeat to a player twice his age. He captured gold medals in the under-15, under-18 and under-21 divisions. Almost overnight, in the international world of table tennis, his reputation as a prodigy bloomed like a rose in spring.

“That was when I knew I might be able to do something with table tennis,” Jha said. “But I realized I had a lot of work to do. This sport requires a lot more than people think.”

Indeed, to be an elite table tennis player requires tremendous core strength. Jha is constantly performing drills—such as scooping up soccer balls a coach throws at him—to solidify his small frame (he’s 5’6’’ and 125 pounds) and accelerate his reaction time. He equates each shot to a sprinter in the 100-yard dash bolting out of the starting blocks, with the amount of force and torque and energy involved in generating the spin and speed he needs each time he blasts at the ball.

Jha still has plenty of work to do. He was eliminated early in the Rio's men's singles competition. His next chance to impress on the Olympic stage is Friday, when the U.S. begins play in the men's team event.

“For a young player, he has great power,” U.S. coach Massimo Costantini said. “But he’s still growing. His success should just be an appetizer for the main course still to come. Kanak has the potential to be one of the best in the world. He has an attitude for table tennis. If he could play 24 hours a day, he would.”

In August 2015, Jha made the difficult decision to move 5,500 miles from home to Helmet, Sweden, to train at a facility with some of the best players and coaches in the world. At age 15, he was one of the youngest players at the Halmstad Bordtennisklubb, where he practiced against professionals who make six figures a year on the table tennis circuit in Europe.

Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

The days were long in Sweden for Jha, who lived with his sister in a tiny one-bedroom apartment where the defining feature was a weathered couch. Jha would have a four-hour training session in the morning and another marathon session in the afternoon. And then at night, he’d take a seat on his stool in his apartment, flip on his computer and complete his class assignments for his online high school courses, which were taught by a teacher back at Milpitas High. In his free time, he did what few American-born teenagers have ever done: He watched table tennis matches on his laptop.

“Kanak is more mature than most 16-year-olds, and you see that in all the sacrifices he’s made,” said Wang, his U.S. teammate. “But he’s also still a kid. He loves board games and joking around. We were on a plane recently and playing Monopoly. A computer was one of the players. He was losing, but then he gave all of his money away to the computer so that none of us could win. That shows you how competitive he is.”

Currently ranked 275 in the world by the International Table Tennis Federation and 22nd in the under-18 division, Jha is already gazing into distant horizons—specifically, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. No American has ever won a medal in table tennis, a sport players from the Far East and Europe dominate. “I want to medal in 2020,” Jha said. “I never let myself think too far ahead, but that is a goal. I need to get a lot stronger.”

An hour after detailing his future Olympic vision, Jha was swinging away during a practice session in Pavilion 3 of Rio Central, a cavernous building where the table tennis competition is held. To watch him nearly leap out of his shoes at every ball strike was a little like seeing a baseball player swing for the fences at every pitch, grunting as he hammered ball after ball after ball.

After several minutes, a small lagoon of sweat had puddled at the feet of his practice partner. But the boy—smiling wickedly with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes—wasn’t even breathing hard.

You got the feeling the best was yet to come for America’s youngest Olympian.

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