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Kanak Jha ushers Generation Z into the Olympics

Table tennis Olympian Kanak Jha qualified for Rio in April.
T10 2014

Kanak Jha ushers Generation Z into the Olympics

Table tennis Olympian Kanak Jha, now 16, will play in men's singles and team at Rio.

Rio table tennis Olympian Kanak Jha was not alive for the Y2K craze. He was born after Bill Clinton was impeached, after three Harry Potter books had been released, and after the Real Slim Shady was asked to please stand up. 

Let’s put it this way: For Kanak Jha – who just turned 16 in June – “Toy Story 3” was the first film in the series to come out during his lifetime.

Jha laughs: “Yeah, I had to catch up. But I’ve seen ‘Toy Story 1’ and ‘2’.” 

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Has he heard of Tech Decks?

“No.” 

Pogs?

“Yeah.”

Really, pogs?

“I think so. Through my parents.” 

Pokemon? 

“Of course.”

Well, at least Pokemon has successfully bridged the generational divide. 

The California born-and-raised Jha is among the few athletes appearing at the Rio Games who will represent Generation Z. In fact, he is the first American born in the 2000s to compete in any Olympics.  

Unfortunately, Jha doesn’t have much to say about “kids these days” – largely because he has lived and trained in Halmstad, Sweden since August 2015 in preparation for the upcoming Olympics. Instead of attending a typical high school, Jha has taken online classes.

“Where I train [in Sweden], the club is very strong,” Jha, who hails from Milpitas, CA, says as he prepares for a USA Table Tennis fundraiser in Dunellen, New Jersey. “The environment’s much more intense [than in the U.S.]. And all the time, I’m playing against someone else who wants to improve – in the U.S., I play a lot more with coaches.”

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The table tennis player is so dedicated to his craft that he will resume training in Europe following the Games. While he plans to eventually attend college, Jha – who will begin his junior year of high school in September – does not envision himself returning to a traditional secondary school environment.  

When asked if he thinks he's missing out on the ordinary high school experience, Jha says yes. "But I think I have had many other cool and amazing experiences abroad, so it weighs out," he says.

From what he’s seen, Jha does believe table tennis is growing with younger generations in his home country. “In the U.S., for sure, [the sport] is much bigger,” Jha says. “Now there’s a lot of strong juniors in the U.S., which I’m pretty sure hasn’t happened for a long time. It’s quite strong, actually.”

The growing interest is at least partially evidenced by the emergence of the United States’ first Olympic table tennis men’s team, which resulted from three males individually qualifying at Trials in April. “Going into Trials, I didn’t think we’d get a team, because Canada’s quite strong,” Jha says. “But I’m very happy. Team is a lot more fun.”

Jha will compete in both singles and team competitions at this August’s Games. While he has a number of table tennis-playing years – and hopefully several Olympics – ahead of him, Jha insists his current age is irrelevant to his quality of play. 

“I don’t think about it at all,” he says. “I’m just trying to prepare for the Olympics. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how old you are.”

 

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