Bay Area Olympians: Milpitas Teen Youngest U.S. Athlete in Rio

July 31, 2016 GMT

Kanak Jha wanted in on the action. The slight Milpitas boy could barely see over the table at the India Community Center, but that didn’t deter him. Jha pestered older players to let him join their table tennis games.

“Nobody would even pay attention to him,” mother Karuna Jain recalled.

The mom and son would find an empty table to bat around the little plastic ball as if they were at a birthday party.

From such humble beginnings spawned America’s table tennis prodigy.

Jha, 16, is the United States’ youngest Olympian entered in the Rio Games after advancing quickly through the national ranks. Two years ago, the rising junior at Milpitas High became the youngest man to ever qualify for the World Championships.

“It’s really hard to get him off the table,” said Stefan Feth, the teen’s coach at World Champions Table Tennis Academy in Santa Clara.

His mother could have told the German coach that. Jha used to watch international competitions on his computer before trudging off to elementary school. His passion, as much as his skill, has been instrumental in the sudden rise.

“The way he has improved from zero-level to Olympic-level skill in such a short time is incredible,” said Feth, the U.S. national team coach. “He has great footwork. Very good touch and anticipation for the ball. All that put together makes him very special.”

The 5-foot-6 Jha is one of three Bay Area players competing in Brazil, joining two-time Olympian Lily Zhang of Palo Alto and Jiaqi Zheng of Milpitas. Timothy Wang, a member of the men’s team, trained at the India Community Center in Milpitas when Jha and sister Prachi played there five years ago.

The United States qualified full men’s and women’s teams for the first time, a feat Jha expects to enhance his first Olympic experience.

“That’s only going to make the environment more comfortable,” said Jha, who preferred soccer as a child.

He got introduced to table tennis when tagging along with his parents to watch his sister play.

Prachi, who just missed qualifying for the Rio Games, provided all the incentive Jha needed. He quit soccer at age 9 to focus on whacking a spiraling ball at opponents.

The siblings engaged in fierce practice sessions.

“They had a bit of a rivalry but it was more about making each other better,” Jain said. “They motivated each other.”

Prachi, 18, marveled at her brother’s athletic gifts at whatever sport he played.

“I think the combination of talent and sheer love for the sport is what makes Kanak so good,” she said.

Jha moved to Halmstad, Sweden, just before the start of his sophomore year to join Prachi, who competed in women’s professional league there. The kids shared an austere apartment near the table tennis facility Halmstad BTK. Jha took online courses to continue his high school education.

“It wasn’t easy,” Prachi said, of the cramped one-bedroom apartment and the fact they saw each other all day in the practice hall.

“But we managed to survive the experience and I think we both matured a lot in the process,” she added.

To be a professional at the Halmstad club meant rigorous training away from the white-lined, green tables. The teen was paired with a physical trainer who created a program to help strengthen his legs and increase his agility.

The club, established in 1937, is led by former world champion Ulf Carlsson, who has helped Jha develop shots with the assortment of wicked spins table tennis players employ.

Jha also played in Sweden’s professional league, which elevated his game more than the private sessions back home.

“When you’re training with someone who is competing against you it really helps you improve,” he said. “Players are professional there. It’s their career.”

Jha showed off his development by winning the U.S. championship in the spring and earning a berth into the final Olympic qualifying tournament against Canada. His chances of reaching Rio looked doubtful when the teen fell behind a Canadian rival 5-0 in the final set. But Jha showed inspiring poise by rallying for an 11-5 victory.

Jha enters the Rio Games as the world’s 272nd-ranked player. The goal of his first Olympics is to win three preliminary-round games to reach the main draw of 64 players.

The pressure of being the youngest men’s table tennis player in Rio doesn’t faze him.

“I don’t think about it too much,” Jha said. ” When you’re over there it doesn’t really matter how old you are.”

Just spin, baby.