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

French skiers to start in Lake Louise after David Poisson’s death

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PARIS (AP) — The French skiing federation says its athletes will compete in Lake Louise at the first World Cup speed events of the Alpine season despite the death of David Poisson earlier this week.

The 35-year-old Poisson died on Monday in a crash while training at the Canadian resort of Nakiska, which staged Alpine skiing races of the 1988 Olympics.

The federation said in a statement Sunday that it has provided psychological support to all members of the French squad who were present in Nakiska when Poisson died, and that “all athletes decided to start the first speed World Cup of the season on Nov. 25-26 in Lake Louise, Canada.”

Poisson, who won the downhill bronze medal at the 2013 world championships, was training for the upcoming World Cup races in North America.

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MORE: Alpine skiing season broadcast schedule

John Shuster, 30 pounds lighter, rallies for 4th Olympic curling berth

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John Shuster is going to a fourth Olympics. It’s one more chance to prove Urban Dictionary wrong.

Shuster, 30 pounds lighter since his second straight Olympic failure in Sochi, led a team that beat Heath McCormick‘s squad at the U.S. Olympic Trials finals in Omaha on Saturday night.

Shuster, Tyler GeorgeMatt Hamilton and John Landsteiner lost the opener of a best-of-three finals series on Thursday.

They came back to deliver in a pair of must-win games, 9-4 on Friday night and 7-5 on Saturday, after spending each day at the Omaha Zoo.

The new-look Shuster — leaner and, at least this weekend, clutch — would astonish those who know him by scenes at the last two Olympics.

After taking bronze in 2006 as a role player, he led the last two U.S. Olympic teams to 2-7 records in 2010 and in 2014. Last place in Vancouver, where he was benched after an 0-4 start. Next to last place in Sochi.

After the last Olympics, the former bartender from Chisholm, Minn., was left off USA Curling’s 10-man high performance team.

He took it as motivation to get in shape.

Shuster, a father of a 2- and a 4-year-old who once said, “If I don’t have pizza three or four times a week, I’m not happy,” now totes meal replacement shakes. He’s starting to enjoy Olympic lifting.

Shuster, George, Hamilton and Landsteiner, all absent from that USA Curling high performance list, formed their own team. They became Team USA in their first season together and represented the Stars and Stripes at worlds in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Their results — fourth, third and fifth —  marked the best string of U.S. men’s or women’s finishes at that level in a decade.

Shuster is set to join Debbie McCormick as the only Americans to curl at four Olympics. The sport was part of the first Winter Games in 1924, then absent as a medal sport until 1998.

“I don’t think it’s about the four Olympics for me,” Shuster said on NBCSN. “What this is about — and what I’m about — is getting my teammates to now. I have two new Olympians on this team, and I know how special that is.”

George, the 35-year-old vice skip for Shuster, led a team that lost to Shuster in the 2010 Olympic Trials final. The liquor store manager from Duluth, Minn., is going to his first Winter Games.

As is the 28-year-old Hamilton, whose younger sister qualified for PyeongChang earlier Saturday.

Landsteiner, a 27-year-old corrosion engineer, played with Shuster since 2011, including in Sochi.

Alternate Joe Polo can go 12 years between Olympic appearances after taking bronze on that Torino team.

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MORE: U.S. Winter Olympic Trials broadcast schedule