Native Americans in search of Olympic glory in table tennis

San José resident Nikhil Kumar will soon continue his studies in computer science at one of the most prestigious academic institutions, the University of California at Berkeley.

But something even grander awaits the new high school graduate – Nikhil has secured a place in the USA team.

A great table tennis player, he is one of six paddling champions who will represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics. A left-handed attacking player, Indian Nikhil won first place in the US Olympic table tennis trials. He won gold at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games and earned U-21 men’s bronze at the ITTF Portugal Open 2020.

Born in 2003, Nikhil will be the youngest American TT player at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, home of the TT arena of the 2021 Olympics.

Kanak Jha is another American Indian from the USATT team. The singles player, in fact, will be playing his second consecutive Olympic Games.

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Right-handed attacking player, he won bronze at the Youth Olympic Games. Kanak also won gold in the men’s singles and doubles at the 2019 U.S. Nationals.

Kanak, 2018 Pan Am singles gold medalist, Kanak trains in Germany where TT infrastructure is considered top notch, but he belongs to the Bay Area of ​​SF, also known as Silicon Valley, as were four of the six paddlers of the United States Olympic team. . The other two are former Chinese national team players, who immigrated to the United States.

What is so unique about the Bay Area about producing four of the six paddlers chosen for the USATT Olympic team? The answer lies in former Indian table tennis player Rajul Sheth, who the USATT website describes as managing “the most successful table tennis program in the United States.”

Rajul Sheth, executive director of sports at the Indian Community Center, has so far produced seven Olympians and more than 70 US national players. – Special arrangement

Rajul, born in Vadodara, moved to California in 2002 when table tennis and other sports were discontinued at IPCL, the company he worked for. Professional table tennis was almost non-existent in the US when he arrived. Called ping-pong, it was largely a light recreational activity.

While working at night in a gas station. Sheth’s desire for TT led him to strike up a conversation with a player who often came to refuel. Former Indian TT player and national engineer Rajul discovered that there was only one sports club in the Bay Area of ​​SF that had a TT table.

One thing led to another, and Sheth’s skills took him to the India Community Center (ICC) in the town of Milpitas, where he started a summer program with two TT tables and a few young children in 2005. He had the gift of identifying and maintaining natural TT. talent of its young campers. Despite the constant financial challenges, with TT not being a traditional American sport, Sheth has continued to produce seven Olympians and more than 70 U.S. National players over the past fifteen years.

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“Three athletes qualified for the London 2012 Olympics – all 3 were training with me at ICC. We sent players to Rio, including Kanak who started with me in 2004. Nikhil played here from 2008 to 2017, ”said Sheth, Executive Director of Sports at ICC.

Sashi Kumar, Nikhil’s father, is a software professional who moved to the United States from Kerala. He credits Sheth with nurturing his son’s TT dream. “Rajul, being a sportsman himself, had the drive. Nikhil has accomplished a lot with him. The sport is difficult due to the limited facilities. You won’t find a single TT table in 99% of US schools, which is why the club has stepped up.

To bring its young talents to the international level, ICC has imported coaches from abroad. “Indian coaches are very good for young children. The Chinese coaches are high level partners, with a clear style and strategy, ”said Sheth.

Nikhil Kumar trained with an Indian coach, Kashyap, until 2014, after which his Chinese coach Tao took him to international competitions. Bringing in Italian coach Massimo Constantini, who rose to prominence after forming the Indian Commonwealth TT team, helped improve the form of many paddlers, including Nikhil. “ICC coach Massimo has helped a lot with new techniques and understanding the game. I keep in touch with him and meet him at international tournaments,” said Nikhil, adding that he had benefited greatly from the coaches. German national team of the United States.

The United States has never won a TT medal at the Olympics. TT is a sport dominated by China. The United States is sending a full six-member TT team to the Olympics for just the second time in history, thanks in large part to Rajul Sheth’s persistence in raising the profile of the game in the United States, his homeland of adoption.

Sheth took ICC from a two-table summer camp and turned it into a 20,000 square foot lot. home of American table tennis – the largest in North America. His proteges Kanak Jha and Nikhil Kumar now aspire to Olympic glory in Tokyo.

(Savita Patel is a senior print and broadcast journalist with over 20 years of reporting experience. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area).

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