Meet Olympians Nikhil Kumar, Kanak Jha, the Indian American Stars in Team USA
- Trained by veteran table tennis player, Rajul Sheth, the two are chasing gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Indian American youngsters Nikhil Kumar and Kanak Jha are not just your average teens. For those in the know, the two are ranked among table tennis’s top players, their names synonymous with the sport. And now they are all set to earn more accolades as part of the six-member USA table tennis squad for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, to be held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
Even though both Jha and Kumar had qualified for the Tokyo Games in 2019 and 2020 respectively, the postponement of the Olympics by a year due to the pandemic meant that most of the qualified athletes had to re-confirm their qualification by their national governing body and the United States Olympics and Paralympic committee. But as it turns out, both Jha and Kumar are still eligible to play at Tokyo and will form the core of America’s six paddler contingent.
Kumar, 17, a San Jose, California resident and a left-hand attacking player, has been shining on the table tennis courts since he was 10. The paddler, who will soon be pursuing Computer Science at the University of California in Berkeley, qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Summer Games at a March 1 competition, earning first place in the trials. He also won gold at the 2019 Lima Pan American Games and secured Men’s U-21 bronze at the 2020 ITTF Portugal Open. The 2003-born Kumar, who will be participating in his first-ever Olympics, will become the second-youngest paddler to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. He is currently ranked 177th in the world.
Kanak Jha, 21, on the other hand, was the youngest American athlete to participate in the 2016Olympics, and the first American born in the 2000s to qualify for the Olympics. Last year, the right-hand attacking player became the first male player to win a four-peat, as he won the first game of his men’s singles final against Kumar, 11-3. He then went on to defeat Kumar in five games in the U.S. National Table Tennis Championships.
The Milpitas, California-based Jha, who trains in Germany where table tennis infrastructure is considered top-notch, also won the doubles, making it the first time he won both the singles and doubles titles. He made his Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, competing in both singles and doubles. He competed at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 and earned a bronze medal, the first men’s Olympic or Youth Olympic table tennis medal for the U.S. Jha, currently ranked number 30 in the world, the highest rank in the United States, will be the flag-bearer of the Olympic team. His mother, Karuna, is from Mumbai, and his father, Arun, grew up in Allahabad and Kolkata.
And the thread that binds these two young men – other than their love of the sport and their California addresses – is their training under former Indian table tennis player Rajul Sheth, who is credited with producing seven Olympians, including Jha and more than 70 U.S. national players in the last decade and a half. The USATT website says Sheth is managing “the most successful table tennis program in the U.S.
According to Sportstar, the Vadodara-born Sheth moved to California in 2002 when table tennis and other sports were discontinued at IPCL, the company he was employed with. “I played for India. I was in the national circuit in India for 15 years. I was working for IPCL in Gujarat when Reliance took over, sportsmen started leaving the company. I had a green card, so I decided to come to the U.S.,” Sheth told The Quint.
India’s loss was the USA’s gain. Professional table tennis was almost non-existent here when Sheth arrived. Referred to as ping pong, it was largely a light, recreational activity.
A mechanical engineer by training, Seth worked as a gas station attendant during his initial months in California. A chance encounter one midnight rekindled his TT dreams. Sheth struck up a conversation with a player who often came to fill up gas. Sheth soon discovered that there was only one sports club in the Bay Area which had a TT table. “The economy was bad so I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station. I struck up a conversation with a guy, who would come to fill gas at midnight, wearing TT branding on his T-shirt. He ignored me first. But I was persistent. I learnt from him that there was only one TT table at a Palo Alto club in the entire Bay Area. He offered me a ride. Upon seeing my skills, he drove me to competitions in other cities. An Indian couple spotted me and suggested that I should coach kids at the ICC [India Community Center],” recalled Sheth to The Quint.
One thing led to another, and Sheth’s skills landed him at the ICC in Milpitas, where he started a summer program with two TT tables and a few young kids in 2005. Conceived as an inclusive space to preserve Indian culture for its diaspora, ICC is the largest Indian center in NorthernAmerica, hosting community events, activities for seniors, fitness programs, etc.
Recognition along the way helped. “Our player Lily Zhang has been at ICC for 11 years. Lily played in the 2012 Olympics in London. That is when we came into the limelight. We had three Olympians from ICC at the London Olympics. The center was doing excellent,” said Sheth, who is now the executive director of Sports at ICC.
Sheth, who had a knack for identifying and nurturing natural talent, despite constant financial challenges with TT not being a mainstream American sport, has achieved success in the arena of TT and is known as the man instrumental in changing the USA’s perception of the game. From fueling gas to fueling American TT dreams, Sheth has achieved immigrant gold.
And it was at an ICC summer camp that Sheth first noticed Kumar. Speaking to Sportstar, Sashi Kumar, Nikhil’s father, a software professional who moved to the U.S. from Kerala, credits Sheth for nurturing his son’s TT dream. “Rajul, being a sportsman himself, had the drive. Nikhil has achieved a lot because of him. The sport is difficult because of limited facilities. You will not find a single TT table at 99 percent of American schools, hence the club stepped up.” He added fondly recalling the beginning of their TT journey, “I laugh right now thinking that if 20 years ago someone had told me that I would be spending so much time on TT, I would have not believed it! Coaches from India were at an ICC summer camp. A coach who had an eye for talent came to me and said I should encourage Nikhil. A couple of months later they mentioned it again, so we decided to give it a shot. It is all fate. Rajul supported us by helping push Nikhil quite a bit.”
Today, Sheth has taken ICC from a two-table summer camp and transformed it into a 20,000 sq. ft. hotbed of U.S. table tennis and Olympic hopefuls – the largest facility in North America. Along with revolutionizing U.S. table tennis, ICC has also been a catalyst for the proliferation of TT clubs in the SF Bay Area. “When I started in 2004, there was not a single full-time club. Now 15-20 full-time clubs are operating here. TT is an expensive game. It has suddenly become a business,” he told The Quint.
The U.S. is sending a full six-member team to the Olympics for only the second time in history.
The other four members of Team USA are Juan Liu, Huijing Wang, Lily Zhang and Zhou Xin– two of whom Zhang and Xin have trained at ICC under Sheth, along with Kumar and Jha. Wang, 39, is set to become the second-oldest female U.S. Olympic table tennis player since it was added to the program in 1988. Liu is a former Chinese national team player who became a U.S. citizen in 2016, according to TeamUSA.org.
The U.S. has never won a medal for table tennis at the Olympics. It is a sport dominated by China. But this year, all eyes will be on Sheth’s proteges, Kumar and Jha, who will be aspiring for Olympic gold as part of Team USA.