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

2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France results for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:05
2. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — +:59
3. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:30
4. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +5:58
5. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
6. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +6:47
7. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:48
8. Rigberto Uran (COL) — +8:02
9. Adam Yates (GBR) — +9:25
10. Damiano Caruso (ITA) — +14:03
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +25:53
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +42:20
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +1:03:07
29. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:59:54
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:19:11
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 380 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 284
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 260
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 181
5. Wout van Aert (BEL) — 174

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 82 points
2. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:13
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:42:43
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:55:12
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:15:39

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TOUR DE FRANCE: TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage | Favorites, Predictions

Tadej Pogacar, Slovenia win Tour de France for the ages

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A Tour de France that almost didn’t happen ended up among the most exciting in the race’s 117-year history.

Tadej Pogacar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, rode into Paris on Sunday as the first man in more than 60 years to pedal in the yellow jersey for the first time on the final day of a Tour.

Let’s get the achievements out of the way: Pogacar is the first Slovenian to win the Tour, finishing with the other overall leaders behind stage winner Sam Bennett on the Champs-Elysees.

“Even if I would come second or last, it wouldn’t matter, it would be still nice to be here,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top. I cannot describe this feeling with the words.”

He is the second-youngest winner in race history, after Henri Cornet in 1904. (Cornet won after the first four finishers were disqualified for unspecified cheating. The 19-year-old Frenchman rode 21 miles with a flat tire during the last stage after spectators reportedly threw nails on the road.)

Pogacar is the first man to win a Tour in his debut since Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1983.

And he’s part of a historic one-two for Slovenia, a nation with the population of Houston.

Countryman Primoz Roglic, who wore the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks before ceding it after Saturday’s epic time trial, embraced Pogacar after a tearful defeat Saturday and again during Sunday’s stage.

Tasmanian Richie Porte, who moved from fourth place to third on Saturday, made his first Tour podium in his 10th start, a record according to ProCyclingStats.com. The age range on the Paris gloaming podium — more than 13 years — is reportedly the largest in Tour history.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Three men on a Tour de France podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, each for the first time. Hasn’t been done since 2007, arguably the first Tour of a new era.

This Tour feels similarly guard-changing.

It barely got off, delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. Two days before the start, France’s prime minister said the virus was “gaining ground” in the nation and announced new “red zones” in the country, including parts of the Tour route.

Testing protocols meant that if any team had two members (cyclists or staff) test positive before the start or on either rest day, the whole team would be thrown out.

It never came to that. Yet the Tour finishes without 2019 champion, Colombian Egan Bernal, who last year became the first South American winner and, at the time, the youngest in more than 100 years.

Bernal abandoned last Wednesday after struggling in the mountains. His standings plummet signaled the end, at least for now, of the Ineos Grenadiers dynasty after five straight Tour titles dating to Chris Froome and the Team Sky days.

Jumbo-Visma became the new dominant team. The leader Roglic was ushered up climbs by several Jumbo men, including Sepp Kuss, the most promising American male cyclist in several years.

What a story Roglic was shaping up to be. A junior champion ski jumper, he was concussed in a training crash on the eve of what would have been his World Cup debut in 2007. Roglic never made it to the World Cup before quitting and taking up cycling years later.

As Roglic recovered from that spill in Planica, Pogacar had his sights on the Rog Ljubljana cycling club about 60 miles east. Little Tadej wanted to follow older brother Tilen into bike racing, but the club didn’t have a bike small enough.

The following spring, they found one. Pogacar was off and pedaling. In 2018, at age 18, he was offered a contract and then signed with UAE Team Emirates, his first World Tour team. The next year, Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic, becoming the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

Pogacar was initially slated to support another rider, Fabio Aru, for UAE Emirates at this year’s Tour. But his continued ascent propelled him into a team leader role.

Bernal and Roglic entered the Tour as co-favorites. After that, Pogacar was among a group of podium contenders but perhaps with the highest ceiling.

He stayed with the favorites for much of the Tour, save losing 81 seconds on the seventh stage, caught on the wrong end of a split after a crash in front of him.

“I’m not worried,” Pogacar said that day. “We will try another day.”

The next day, actually. He reeled back half of the lost time, putting him within striking distance of Roglic going into Saturday’s 22-mile time trial, the so-called “race of truth.”

Pogacar put in a performance in the time trial that reminded of Greg LeMond‘s epic finale in 1989. Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place. Roglic was a disappointing fifth on the day, but he could have finished second and still lost all of his 57-second lead to Pogacar.

Pogacar turns 22 on Monday, but that might not add much to the celebration.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of my birthdays.”

MORE: USA Cycling names Olympic team finalists

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