Kanak Jha
USA Table Tennis

First U.S. Olympian born in 2000s not thinking about age record

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kanak Jha is having quite a year. He spent nine months playing professional table tennis in Europe, threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game on his birthday and qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

And get this: He’s only 16.

“I’m happy that I’m the youngest, but I don’t think about it so much,” said Jha, who in April, when he was still 15, became the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history. “In the end, it’s just men.”

If he sounds mature for his age, he comes across that way. Jha’s competitive during a match, but easygoing away from the table. He recently trained at the Lily Yip Table Tennis Center in the New York area with his five Olympic teammates and signed autographs for fans.

“He has a good fighting spirit,” said U.S. Olympic coach Massimo Costantini. “Sometimes at that age, they get upset and are not mature. We’re working on the mental side to make him stronger. A simple mistake can compromise the entire match.

“You need a strong mental balance,” Costantini said. “It’s not just managing success, but failure.”

Yip, who competed for the U.S. in table tennis at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Games, is the U.S. girls national junior team coach. She hosted the current Olympic team, which wrapped up three days of practice with an exhibition and fundraiser at her club in Dunellen, New Jersey.

During the exhibition match, Jha started his serve by holding the ball and paddle a few inches from his nose, then tossing the ball 4 feet into the air before making contact. After the point, he wiped the table with his hand, a common players’ habit before serving.

Although he lost the match to an older and higher-rated Chinese player, Jha drew warm applause from the mostly Asian audience.

Gordon Kaye, CEO of the USA Table Tennis, says it’s rare to find a young player “of his caliber that is so aware and comfortable within his surroundings.”

It’s certainly not your basement pingpong, with quick best-of-7 singles matches played to 11 points. There are different styles — defensive “choppers” or offensive “loopers,” who play a more aggressive game.

The Chinese men and women are the best in the world, winning Olympic gold with regularity. Since the 1988 Olympics, China has won 47 medals, followed by South Korea (18) and Germany (5).

The U.S. has never medaled in the sport, which offers singles and team competition. Gold-medalist Jike Zhang will return to defend his title in Rio, where competition begins Aug. 6.

So why are the Chinese so good, aside from their devotion to the sport and its prominence in the culture?

“They’re very strong, especially in the first three shots of the rally — serve, receive and third-ball attack,” Jha said. “They really dominate the rally.”

Yue “Jennifer” Wu, like Yip, was born in China before becoming an American citizen. She moved from Beijing to New York eight years ago and improved her English by coaching at the club run by Wang Chen, a U.S. Olympian in the 2008 Games.

The 26-year-old gives lessons in New York at Spin, a table tennis club and restaurant co-owned by Susan Sarandon. Wu recently went home to Beijing and Japan to train and played tournaments in Croatia and Slovenia.

“Table tennis in China is like the NBA here, everybody plays,” Wu said. “My mom plays three times a week and people love to watch.”

She ate no meat for a month while in Beijing, saying her concerns about banned steroids given to cattle trump those of the Zika virus in Rio. Wise decision, because drug testers arrived at 6:40 a.m. when she returned home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Wu said it was a “big dream” to make the Olympics since she was 8 years old. She was quiet on the bus after qualifying for the Rio Olympics at the Pan Am Games last year because it’s “hard to make Olympics, you work so very hard.”

Jha, who took up the sport at 5 at a recreation center near San Jose, California, lived in Sweden with his 19-year-old sister Prachi, who played on the national team but didn’t qualify for Rio. He took online courses during his sophomore year in high school.

“There’s a consistent training system,” Constantini said of the European circuit. “A coach, trainer, physiotherapist. It’s something you can’t find in the U.S.”

Jha’s parents are from India, and he was born in the U.S. His father Arun came to America to study business and works at Oracle. His mother Karuna worked at Sun Microsystems before starting her own hypnotherapy and reiki business.

“She feels my energy,” Kanak said of the reiki treatments.

Kanak uses positive imagery and self-talk before and during matches.

“It’s kind of a ritual,” he said. “I just keep reviewing strategy and say some motivational things to myself. I talk (silently) to myself a lot. More than other athletes.”

The personal pep talks and affirmations seem to be working. Even so, his mom says she was “so nervous watching” the Olympic qualifying event in April in Markham, Ontario.

Jha says he’s looking forward to the athletes’ village and mingling with players from all over the world.

“It’s a great opportunity at this young age to see how the Olympics works,” Constantini said. “He will be ready by 2020.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

Team USA Opening Ceremony uniforms have heaters

NBC Universal
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The U.S. Olympic team uniforms for the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony contain heating components that will last up to 11 hours.

Ice dancers Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and bobsledder Aja Evans wore the uniforms on TODAY on Monday.

The heat technology will come in handy.

The PyeongChang Opening Ceremony on Feb. 9 (live streaming on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app) will be in an outdoor stadium, likely in below-freezing temperatures.

From USA Today:

“The athletes can set the temperature (there are three settings) via their cellphones. The heat can last up to five hours on the high setting and 11 hours on the low setting, fully charged.”

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MORE: PyeongChang Olympic schedule daily highlights

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Jamaica misses Olympic men’s bobsled by one spot

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The only Jamaican bobsled team in PyeongChang will be its women’s bobsled team.

Jamaica missed qualifying a two-man bobsled team for the Olympics by one spot in rankings finalized last week.

Jamaica still had a chance to sneak into the 30-sled Olympic field if one of the qualified nations declined a spot, but that didn’t happen.

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation made it official Monday, publishing the Olympic fields for each event.

At least one Jamaican men’s sled competed in every Olympics from 1988 through 2002, then again in 2014.

Sochi driver Winston Watts retired, but a new team was formed in this Olympic cycle that included former Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals running back Michael Blair.

New driver Seldwyn Morgan competed on the lower-level North American Cup the last three seasons with a top finish of seventh.

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MORE: Would Usain Bolt make a good bobsledder?