Jha, 16, cool under pressure

- Michelle R. Martinelli Special for USA TODAY Sports

Like most American teenagers, Kanak Jha, 16, goes to high school, plays sports and is competitiv­e with his sister.

But he’s also the first U.S. athlete born in the 2000s to qualify for the Olympics. This summer in Rio de Janeiro, he will be the youngest male player in the world ever to compete in table tennis at the Games.

“It’s so impressive to watch that kid go at it,” USA Table Tennis CEO Gordon Kaye said. “He just has this sort of unknown X factor. He has this will and he has this determinat­ion, and it’s really impressive to watch. Sometimes you scratch your head and say, ‘That kid’s only (16)?’ ”

The California native won the North American Olympic Qualificat­ion Tournament in April in Markham, Ontario, and his performanc­e not only guaranteed his trip to Rio but also helped qualify the USA for its first team competitio­n. Jha will play in the men’s singles and in team events with Yijun Feng and 2012 Olympian Timothy Wang, whom he defeated in the qualificat­ion tournament’s final.

A U.S. table tennis player has never advanced past the quarterfin­als of an Olympic tournament.

In Team USA’s last major event before Rio, Jha will compete in the U.S. national championsh­ips, set to begin Monday in Las Vegas.

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

At 12, Jha was playing in internatio­nal tournament­s and quickly realized 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 Prachi.

“The environmen­t is much more competitiv­e when you’re playing in a group where everyone is trying to win,” Jha said. “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 in that environmen­t.”

Between his two-a-day practices, Jha is enrolled in an online curriculum at Milpitas (Calif.) High School.

Intensely competitiv­e on the table, Jha remains humble and laid-back.

“If you watch him play, you can see how composed and calm he is under pressure,” said his father, Arun. “People are very surprised that he can handle that pressure under such intense circumstan­ces with a lot of poise. He’s just tremendous­ly competitiv­e without portraying a lot of emotion. He’s just focused.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States