Kanak Jha in training
Kanak Jha spent a week in San Jose in June training at World Champions Table Tennis Academy for the U.S. National Championships. Video by Aishwarya Kumar.
MILPITAS, Calif. -- The graduation ceremony for Milpitas High School is underway in the school's football stadium -- a scene repeated thousands of times across America each year. Here, American table tennis prodigy and junior world No. 1 Kanak Jha is walking with 800 classmates.
It's a chilly June evening in Northern California, and as with any high school graduation, the stands are filled with friends and family. By the time Jha's parents arrive, they are unable to find seats and content themselves with standing next to one of the entrances close to the stage.
Students, friends and family with drums, trumpets and posters of graduates are stationed in all corners of the stadium. Sometimes the cheering gets so loud it is hard to hear the names.
Jha, 17 and of Indian-American heritage, is dressed in traditional cap and gown, and beneath that a blue suit -- the only formal attire he owns -- his dad had bought him for his meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama at the White House in 2016.
"Kanak Jha," the announcer calls into the microphone.
"I would have paid these kids to cheer for Kanak," Karuna Jha, Kanak's mom, jokes.
Jha walks up, holds his hand out for his diploma, smiles at the crowd and walks back to his seat.
His mother's lone claps fade meekly away.
The youngest athlete -- and the first born in the 21st century -- to represent the United States at the Olympics and the International Table Tennis Federation World Cup is a stranger at his own high school.
But Kanak Jha is changing American table tennis, one decision at a time.
Two days after graduation, a schedule mix-up with his private coach, Stefan Feth, results in Jha having to practice at Swan, a table tennis club in nearby Santa Clara, during a public session. The club is packed, and not a single table is available for Jha to practice. Unfazed by the change of plans, he finds himself a corner in the club and begins warming up.
Jumps. Squats. A knee warm-up with a small rubber ball. All the while looking around to see whether a table has freed up.
Jha has a commanding presence -- his hazel eyes and his toned legs (they look like a soccer player's legs) -- combined with his easy smile and laid-back banter make heads turn. He is like any 18-year-old in that sense; he loves talking about the NBA and the Golden State Warriors and can have a fun conversation with anybody he meets.
A recreational player recognizes him, walks up to him and says, "I will challenge you for a game. If you win, you can have this table to practice."
"Of course," Jha says.
"I am playing the World No. 1," he adds, grinning.
"America is the land of dreams. What am I doing here if I don't let my son follow his?" Karuna Jha, Kanak's mother
Jha's game is loud. He grunts when he returns, his shoes squeak when he moves, the ball ricochets with a pop. The intensity of his presence makes the whole club -- at least 40 people -- stop and stare.
Jha lets his opponent go easy. The game ends 11-7 with a breakneck-speed backhand smash. Several people gasp.
"I am so sorry," Jha mouths.
"Is he your son? He is great," an older man comes up to Jha's dad, Arun, and asks. Arun nods, smiling.
Several people record videos of Jha practicing his smashes. Many walk over after to request pictures.
"Sure," Jha says, smiling.
There are more than 19 million recreational table tennis players in America, but USA Table Tennis (USATT) has 9,000 members. There are 300 table tennis clubs associated with USATT, 50 of which are in California. The current men's roster includes five athletes; the women's includes four.
No American has ever won an Olympic medal.
Kanak Jha might be able to change that.
An entire section of the Jha living room is reserved for Kanak's trophies and medals. There are so many of them, the table is hardly visible. The living room looks very culturally Indian, with a traditional wooden swing and printed red cushions Karuna brought -- carefully packed for customs -- from India seven years ago. Pictures and newspaper clippings adorn the walls. The house is a shrine to Kanak and his older sister, former Team USA table tennis player Prachi Jha.
"We haven't redone the house even once since we bought it in the mid-1990s because we spent all our money on Kanak and Prachi's table tennis," Arun said.
The Jhas would go to the India Community Center in Milpitas, and when the center launched a table tennis club, the siblings immediately wanted to try out the sport. The Jhas could see Kanak's passion in just the way he looked at the table tennis ball. His energy was infectious; he'd always try to outrun their dog, Shadow, and run an extra lap during soccer warm-ups.
Table tennis was so multifaceted, it helped him channel all his energy.
"It's not just about the shot, it's about how the other person is responding to your serve, it's trying to figure out what they are thinking and outsmarting them, it's about strategy," Jha said. "So much of it happens in your head and you have be quick to adapt, and I live for that stuff."
He was hardly taller than the table, but he started beating players twice his size. He topped his sister in the U.S. table tennis ratings (the rankings system) when he was just 12.
His parents couldn't keep him from the game.
Prachi was a good table tennis player. Kanak, a child prodigy.
"America is the land of dreams. What am I doing here if I don't let my son follow his?" Karuna said.
A single hour of beginners practice with a well-regarded coach cost the Jhas anywhere between $50 and $100; there was at least 12 hours of training per child per week. Arun and Karuna were in information technology at the time and earned enough, but they couldn't also go on vacation, remodel the house or buy a second car.
When Kanak started traveling abroad for tournaments -- he was just 11 -- Karuna decided to travel with him. She felt strongly about teaching him some of the core values she learned from her mother as a child in Mumbai. It didn't matter to her if he won matches; it mattered to her that he was honest in the process. During a match in Hong Kong, when a referee didn't see an edge by an opponent, Kanak, then 12, went up to the referee and conceded his point. He ended up winning the game, but his European coaches didn't like what he did; it was all about winning for them. On that day, Karuna was a proud mother.
Another time, when Kanak came back from training and informed her that his coaches want him to eat meat -- the Jha family is vegetarian -- Karuna told him, "You don't have to eat meat to be a good athlete." And whenever they were traveling for tournaments, she made sure the chefs were aware of Kanak's dietary preferences and provided him with vegetarian options.
Even though Kanak was experiencing the world at such a young age, it bothered Karuna that he didn't have an ordinary childhood. So she took it upon herself to arrange for picnics and field trips for Kanak and his teammates. When they weren't traveling, Karuna enrolled Kanak in Jainshala and Hindishala, centers where he could learn the Hindi language and about Jainism.
At school, Kanak would give away half of his lunch (it was a PB&J sandwich sometimes, sometimes dal and roti) to his friends and come back home hungry. He had an easy smile and quick wit, and peers got along with him easily.
His friends in California were beginning high school. Meanwhile, after winning 27 out of the 28 matches at the 2013 U.S. National Championships, Kanak decided to move to Sweden -- the world's table tennis hub -- with Prachi to train with the best in the sport.
American kids didn't up and leave for Europe at 14. Best-case scenario: They went to high school and trained professionally during their free time.
"Sweden sounded exciting," Jha said. "I loved playing table tennis and training for hours and the opportunity to do that with the best players in the world. It was great."
Halmstad, Sweden, felt like home to Jha right from the get-go. He loved how laid-back the people were, he loved the atmosphere at the table tennis centers, he loved the passion people had for table tennis.
Being a professional Indian-American table tennis player in the United States is a strange experience. Commentators pronounce his last name "Ya" instead of "Jha." He is a celebrity in the table tennis world but lives in obscurity otherwise; very few people in America care about the sport. It's a stranger experience when Europe is added to the equation. Jha still liked his mother's dal and rice -- it was his favorite food to eat whenever he went back home -- but he also looked for Chipotle when he traveled the continent. He also enjoyed a good bowl of European yogurt.
His accent was American, but Jha was starting to sound European; he'd say things like, "You're going there, yeah?" And he was famous in Halmstad: He'd walk down the street and be stopped for pictures and handshakes.
Though living away from home, he still had Prachi to take care of him. They shared a room, and after a rigorous day of training, he could depend on her to cook a quick meal. Whenever his mother visited, she'd stay up to do laundry for the kids.
It was also in Sweden that Jha learned he wanted to play table tennis for the long haul. Being around the best players in the world, training for eight hours a day, touring the world -- he's already on his third passport and has visited 35 countries -- playing in some of the biggest tournaments, this was what he wanted. People don't talk about the hours table tennis players spend on their body. Jha runs, lifts weights and does pushups and pullups every day. By the time he was 16, Jha had reached the limits of his growth in Sweden. He'd made the World Cup at 14; only 20 of the best players in the world are selected for the tournament. He made a strong comeback after being down 5-1 in the seventh game of the Olympic tryouts to win 11-5 and make it to his first Olympic Games. In the process, he became the youngest American Olympian. He became the youth world No. 1.
"It was time for me to push myself and get out of the comfort zone," Jha said. "Sweden taught me the foundation, but it was time to learn how to step up my game, and Germany was the answer."
His coach, Feth, who was born and raised in Germany, thought Grenzau was his best option. The training facility there was built to make champions. But moving to Germany meant Jha had to leave Sweden, his favorite country, and the friends he had made and the home he had built there -- and live on his own for the first time.
Jha didn't know whether he was prepared for the change.
Grenzau has a population of around 100 -- so tiny you need to drive to a nearby town to spot a grocery store. When you type in Grenzau on Google, one of the top search results is "Grenzau table tennis." Apart from the Butterfly Table Tennis-School Zugbrücke Grenzau, the town is all hills and forests; it looks like a beautiful resort location. Germany has produced more than 15 Olympic table tennis players.
"Vice did a documentary on him, and when I saw him walking all alone in Grenzau, I felt so sad," Arun Jha said. "Was this what we wanted for him?"
Everything was different in Germany: People were direct and organized. The focus was on how to best equip Jha to win.
Slowly, he saw himself become more independent, as a person and as a player. The silence gave him an opportunity to grow. Jha cooked for himself, did his laundry, was on track to finish his high school credits on time -- and he was winning tournaments. He traveled alone to the Croatia Junior tournament in September 2017 and won the entire event.
Feth, who has trained Jha for 12 years, remembered a conversation when Jha sought Feth's advice on how to beat his next opponent.
"I was watching YouTube videos of his opponents from California and we were discussing tactics, and he went and won the entire tournament, all on his own," Feth said.
Jha knew then he had made the right call in moving to Germany. With high school done, he had to make another decision, one no other table tennis player in America had ever made. Even good table tennis players decide to go to college. They might continue playing in important tournaments, but never at the cost of missing out on the college experience.
He would continue training in Germany. He would enroll in online courses at Mission College, near home. After two years -- and right after Tokyo 2020 -- he will be able to transfer to a full-time college if he still wants to.
College life can wait.
"I was inspired by what he did, and it pushed me to play table tennis more because I saw that you could actually make it." Nick Tio, team member, USA Table Tennis
Feth is feeding Jha three balls at a time. Jha's job: return every single ball. He is training at World Champions Table Tennis Academy in Santa Clara before he heads to Las Vegas for the most anticipated table tennis event in America, the U.S. national championship.
Jha has practiced for two hours straight, but the intensity with which he looks at the ball remains the same throughout. On the rare occasion he misses a return, Feth doesn't talk to him, but if you watch intently enough, you will see Feth moving his hands, showing Jha how he should have held his hand for that return. Watching the two of them train is like watching a synchronized swimming pair. They react in unison.
The U.S. nationals, which run Monday through Saturday, will be an important event; Jha won the tournament the past two years and is the 2018 favorite. Every table tennis player in America wants to beat him. The tournament is also a Las Vegas spectacle, with disco lights around the tables. Fans can order drinks, gamble and cheer for their favorite player. Fans at nationals particularly adore Jha.
After Vegas comes the Youth Olympics, in Buenos Aires in October.
What Jha has done affects more than just his own life. Kids rising up the table tennis ranks have taken note of his decision to move to Sweden and Germany. This year, U.S. teammate Nick Tio has decided to move to Grenzau to train with Jha.
"I was inspired by what he did," Tio said, "and it pushed me to play table tennis more because I saw that you could actually make it."
Kanak Jha is the first. He's lighting the path for American table tennis.
Now, the crowd follows.