For someone born on June 19, 2000, Kanak Jha has done well to fit in with the older crowds. This year, 16-year-old Kanak Jha picked up the paddle as the youngest member of the United States’ Olympic team in Rio. He is the first American born in the 2000s to qualify for the Olympics. He’s also the youngest person in the history of the sport of table tennis to qualify for the Olympics.
His ﬁnal win at the Olympic qualiﬁer was the reason why U.S. table tennis gets to compete in the team event. While California-born, he trains in Sweden because the sport is more competitive and popular in Europe. He’s going into his junior year of high school, though he won’t be going into a “traditional secondary school environment,” NBC Olympics reports. He takes online classes.
Kanak, who had begun playing table tennis at age 5, didn’t start taking the sport more seriously until he was 9 or 10, when he stopped calling it “ping-pong” and started calling it table tennis. Kanak competed in both singles, and team competitions at the Olympics.
He believes age is just a number when it comes to his abilities. “I don’t think about it at all,” he tells NBC Olympics. “I’m just trying to prepare for the Olympics. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how old you are.”
He’s one of the 16-year-olds going to the Olympics for Team USA this year, including Laurie Hernandez, a gymnast. His 19-year-old sister, Prachi, is also talented at table tennis — she’s also a national team member.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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. 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.
“I see these athletes and so many of them are gold medalists in their sport,” Jha told the media in late July. “It’s humbling to be around them. Many of them don’t know I’m 16.”