RIO DE JANEIRO – For someone born on June 19, 2000, KanakJha has done well to fit in with the older crowds.
He knows what a VHS is and grew up watching a few video tapes. Before Pokémon took off on people’s iPhones, he remembers collecting stacks of the trading cards. His iPod includes classics by Michael Jackson and Queen. Jha is still a kid but he also holds the distinction of being the first U.S. Olympian born in 2000 to compete at the Summer Games. He competed in Thursday’s preliminary round of table tennis, losing 4–1 to 23-year-old Nima Alamian of Iran.
“It’s definitely a very great experience,” Jha says. “I didn’t know the atmosphere would be as good as it was in this match.”
The 16-year-old isn’t quite finished yet—he’ll compete in the team event on Aug. 12—but he’s here to enjoy his first Olympics. He did a good job of doing just that on Friday night at the Opening Ceremony, which included selfies with the U.S. men’s basketball team, Michael Phelps, Jordan Burroughs and several other athletes that he gets to call teammates. At this point, his phone is packed with photos of these famous encounters, as he also snapped away at Olympic team processing, taking photos with members of the track team and gold-medalist fencer Mariel Zagunis.
“I see these athletes and so many of them are gold medalists in their sport,” Jha told SI in late July. “It’s humbling to be around them. Many of them don’t know I’m 16.”
His age is what makes him a part of history and maybe a $1,000 Jeopardy answer to “He is the youngest male player in the world ever to compete in table tennis at the Olympics.”
The son to immigrant parents from India, Jha started playing at five years old and has never been a stranger to facing much older competition. When he was seven, he played someone 10 times his age but still came away with the victory over the 70-year-old, his father Arun recalls.
Jha remembers watching Michael Phelps win eight medals at the Beijing Olympics, but he has few Olympics before then. He was 12 as he watched the London Olympics on television and remembers played against several of the U.S. table tennis stars. His own Olympic dreams started to feel within reach when he reached the men’s semifinals at the U.S. Nationals when he was just 13 years old.
“I didn’t really have too many expectations going into that semifinals match and it was kind of a dream that I played so well,” Jha says. “It gave me a lot of confidence and I started to think about the Olympics more.”
In 2013, Jha had a very successful season, winning 27 of his 28 matches. That’s when he made his first trip out to Sweden to explore his options playing table tennis at an elite level.
“We had all two years planned out with the Olympics as the final moment of the goal and decided to give it a shot,” Arun says. “For Kanak to go into very formalized training with league matches, he would have to stay in Europe. The realization of the Olympics was in 2013.”
In table tennis, it’s common for American players to head over to Europe or Asia to train and dedicate most of their life to the game. So in 2015, at just 15 years old, Jha made the move to Hamlstad, Sweden, with his sister, Prachi (who didn’t make the Olympic team). Table tennis remains Jha’s sole focus as he takes online classes and will enter his junior year of high school in the fall. When he’s not practicing, he’s your typical 16-year-old hanging out with friends, playing with his dog Shadow or watching Breaking Bad on Netflix—which he watched sometimes hours at a time.
Now he works mainly with two coaches: Stefan Feth, a former German national team member who works remotely from California, and Mikael Andersson in Sweden. The two coaches talk on Skype, where they exchange ideas, advice and reports on training.
In Sweden, Jha’s days consist of a two-to-three-hour practice session in the morning and then another in the afternoon. Sometimes he’ll do some multiball work, where the coach just feeds him a specific serve repeatedly. Also, as a table tennis player, it’s important for him to focus on his legs to increase mobility around the table and his core for power in his shot. Jha’s footwork and speed is biggest strength, and he has soccer to thank—he played until he was about 10 or 11 years old.
2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony
Across many Olympic sports like swimming and track and field, there are the stories of young stars that tend to overtrain, peak or burn out at an early age. U.S. table tennis, which has never medaled at the Olympics, may be hoping for a lengthy career from Jha.
“The male body develops from 18–20 [years old] and so Kanak is very unique,” Feth says. “He’s making up for his body size in different parts of his game because he’s still a little short or not as muscular than other competitors. That’s what we’ve focused on since the start of his career and there have been no shortcuts. He’s on track to be great.”
Jha will continue online schooling throughout high school, and though it’s still two years away, college could pose a challenge as his sights turn to Tokyo 2020. The U.S. table tennis scene is not strong enough for him to return to training while attending an American college so he could explore schooling options in Germany or Sweden. He will likely compete at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, where he will be 18 and has a chance at a medal since he is currently ranked No. 22 in the world for the U-18 age group and many of the competitors ahead of him will be too old to compete.
Team USA coach Massimo Costantini leaves the door open for Jha to become the greatest male American table tennis player of all-time.
“In China, they have a lot of Olympic champions and world champions and every player aspires to play table tennis—at least they have that goal,” Costantini says. “For us, whoever starts in the U.S. as world champion, hypothetically yes I want to be but realistically, it’s really tough. I think Kanak at this age and career that he has just started, he can be the best in the U.S.—but he has a lot to work on.”
Getting old is the least of his worries now.