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Pan American Cup Day 2: Top Seeds Shine

This is Kanak Jha, America’s table tennis phenom

This is Kanak Jha, America’s table tennis phenom
(By Aishwarya Kumar/ESPN.com)

MILPITAS, Calif. — The graduation ceremony for Milpitas High School is underway in the school’s football stadium — a scene repeated thousands of times across America each year. Here, American table tennis prodigy and junior world No. 1 Kanak Jha is walking with 800 classmates.

It’s a chilly June evening in Northern California, and as with any high school graduation, the stands are filled with friends and family. By the time Jha’s parents arrive, they are unable to find seats and content themselves with standing next to one of the entrances close to the stage.

Students, friends and family with drums, trumpets and posters of graduates are stationed in all corners of the stadium. Sometimes the cheering gets so loud it is hard to hear the names.

Jha, 17 and of Indian-American heritage, is dressed in traditional cap and gown, and beneath that a blue suit — the only formal attire he owns — his dad had bought him for his meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama at the White House in 2016.

“Kanak Jha,” the announcer calls into the microphone.

Silence.

“I would have paid these kids to cheer for Kanak,” Karuna Jha, Kanak’s mom, jokes.

Jha walks up, holds his hand out for his diploma, smiles at the crowd and walks back to his seat.

His mother’s lone claps fade meekly away.

The youngest athlete — and the first born in the 21st century — to represent the United States at the Olympics and the International Table Tennis Federation World Cup is a stranger at his own high school.

But Kanak Jha is changing American table tennis, one decision at a time.

Two days after graduation, a schedule mix-up with his private coach, Stefan Feth, results in Jha having to practice at Swan, a table tennis club in nearby Santa Clara, during a public session. The club is packed, and not a single table is available for Jha to practice. Unfazed by the change of plans, he finds himself a corner in the club and begins warming up.

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