This Indian American teen is the rising star of American table tennis

At 16, California native Kanak Jha is the youngest male to represent the sport in the forthcoming Rio Olympics

India At Large staff

He can easily pass off as just another American teen going to school and playing sports. But 16-year-old Kanak Jha is also the first US athlete born in 2000 to qualify for the Olympics, and in Rio de Janeiro this summer, he will be the youngest male player in the world ever to compete in table tennis at the Games.

Having spent nine months playing professional table tennis in Europe, California native Jha threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game on his birthday and qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. “I’m happy that I’m the youngest, but I don’t think about it so much,” Jha was quoted as saying by AP, who in April, when he was still 15, became the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history. “In the end, it’s just men.”

Originally from suburban San Jose, Jha was a toddler when he started watching his older sister, US national team member Prachi Jha, now 19, play table tennis at a local recreational centre. Although his hands could barely reach above the table — he began playing at 5. He said he always felt natural with the paddle in his hand, instinctively hitting the ball.

By the time he was 12, Jha was playing in international tournaments and quickly realised he had the potential to compete among the best. After several national championships, he became the youngest World Cup participant in 2014.

However, as his game improved, he needed to find a more advanced environment. So in August, he moved to Sweden to train at Halmstad Bordtennisklubb, working with some of the world’s top coaches and players, along with his sister Prachi.

“Our club has a very strong level of players, and the environment is much more competitive when you’re playing in a group where everyone is trying to win,” Jha told USA Today. “There are a lot more styles in Sweden, and you see a lot of these people and what their strengths are and how they play the game, and you can improve just from being there in that environment.”

The teenager, whose mother Karuna is from Mumbai and father Arun grew up in Allahabad and Kolkata, is the flag-bearer of the table tennis team. His father came to America to study business and works at Oracle. His mother worked at Sun Microsystems before starting her own hypnotherapy and reiki business.

The Indian connect does not end there. The India Community Centre (ICC) in California, which began as a modest four-table club in 2005, is now home to USA’s Olympic team, which is coached by Italian Massimo Costantini. Costantini, who was India’s national coach till 2012, is also the head coach at the ICC. It is here that Jha got his big break.

Pics courtesy: AP

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