Indian Americans Paddle US' Table Tennis Dream at Tokyo Olympics
An all-Asian team is representing America at the Tokyo Olympics. Here's how their journey began.
Indian Americans Nikhil Kumar and Kanak Jha are table tennis (TT) stars who will represent USA at the Olympic games in Tokyo.
Kumar is the youngest American TT player to have qualified. But for Jha, who also hails from San Francisco Bay Area, this will be his second Olympics stint. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he was the youngest US table tennis player to represent USA.
Both Kumar and Jha picked up the sport early in their childhood. But their discovery is credited to Rajul Sheth – the man who was instrumental in changing USA's perception of the game.
Four of the six paddlers who constitute the USA Olympics team for Tokyo have trained at Sheth’s TT club in California’s Silicon Valley – the India Community Center (ICC).
For Sheth, his journey as an immigrant in America is one of a kind. Having endured hardships and working his way through it, Sheth carved a niche for himself – from fuelling gas to fuelling American dreams.
Rajul Sheth was a national player in India who moved to California after the TT team at his work was dissolved.
"I played for India. I was in the national circuit in India for 15 years. I was working for IPCL in Gujarat when Reliance took over, sportsmen started leaving the company. I had a green card, so I decided to come to US."Rajul Sheth, Executive Director of Sports, ICC
India’s loss was USA’s gain.
A mechanical engineer by training, India’s veteran TT player Sheth worked as a gas station attendant during his initial months in California. A chance encounter one midnight rekindled his TT dreams.
"The economy was bad so I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station. I struck up a conversation with a guy, who would come to fill gas at midnight, wearing TT branding on his T-shirt. He ignored me first. But I was persistent. I learnt from him that there was only one TT table at a Palo Alto club in the entire Bay Area. He offered me a ride. Upon seeing my skills, he drove me to competitions in other cities. An Indian couple spotted me and suggested that I should coach kids at the ICC," recalls Sheth.
That's how Sheth’s American TT journey at India Community Center began – a facility that he turned into the mecca of US table tennis.
The Making of National Players and Olympians
Conceived as an inclusive space to preserve Indian culture for its diaspora, ICC is the largest Indian center in Northern America, hosting community events, activities for seniors, fitness programs, etc.
ICC had a couple of table tennis tables for recreational use in 2004, at a rented facility, where Sheth started coaching.
"I started a program there and within a few years, small kids moved up to playing for the national team. We have produced 70-75 US national team players, and seven Olympians.”Rajul Sheth, Executive Director of Sports, ICC
Spotting TT talent from hundreds of mostly Asian summer campers, motivating their busy parents to drive them to ICC for regular practice –from a low-lit banquet hall space to a state-of-the-art TT arena where ICC table tennis is housed today – took over 15 years.
Recognition along the way helped. "Our player Lily Zhang has been at ICC for 11 years. Lily played in the 2012 Olympics in London. That is when we came into lime light. We had three Olympians from ICC at the London Olympics. The center was doing excellent," said Sheth, who is now the Executive Director of Sports at ICC.
It was at an ICC summer camp that Rajul Sheth noticed little Kumar, now USA’s ace TT player and Olympic dream.
"I started as a 5 or 6-year-old and pretty much played at ICC. That is where everything started for me, playing during summer camps. First of all, my parents had never played TT before. They weren’t so sure as it wasn’t that big in US then. ICC coaches pushed me a lot and told my parents that I had potential. Since I started and till 2016, I was training with an Indian coach, Anil Kashyap, who helped build my foundation in the game," shares Kumar, who trained at ICC for nine years and met his current coach Tao there.
Nikhil Kumar’s father, India-born Shashi Kumar fondly recalls the beginning of their TT journey, "I laugh right now thinking that if 20 years ago someone had told me that I would be spending so much time on TT, I would have not believed it! Coaches from India were at an ICC summer camp. A coach who had an eye for talent, came to me and said I should encourage Nikhil. A couple of months later they mentioned it again, so we decided to give it a shot. It is all fate. Rajul supported us by helping push Nikhil quite a bit."
Working with low budgets, yet managing to raise funds, the ICC was able to hire a range of coaches to help transform young campers into US national players.
"We had eight coaches from India in 16 years, and many from China," says Rajul Sheth.
It was a lucky coincidence that Massimo Constantini, well known for transforming India’s table tennis landed up at ICC a few months after Nikhil started playing TT. Massimo was 'a great influence on Nikhil', who ended up qualifying for US men’s national team when he was only 14 years old.
Nikhil Kumar struck gold at the 2019 Pan American games in Peru, the first time for US in 20 years. Dad Shashi is grateful when he recalls the moment, "We were there, Kanak’s parents were there. It was great to see two Indian kids leading the way."
With 30 TT tables spread over 20,000 sq ft, ICC is the biggest TT facility in Northern America.
Sheth proudly says, "Now we are in the grand new building. One of our full time coaches, Ukrainian Kou Lei is also competing at the Tokyo Olympics."
Rajul Sheth has been recognised and acknowledged for his contribution to table tennis, with the USATT choosing him as a board member. Their website mentions, "It (ICC) is considered one of the largest and most successful table tennis programs in the US."
Rajul’s 16-year-old son, Ved Sheth plays for USA’s TT national team.
A New Future
Along with revolutionising USA table tennis, ICC has also been a catalyst for proliferation of TT clubs in the SF Bay Area.
"When I started in 2004, there was not a single full-time club. Now there are 15-20 full-time clubs operating here. TT is an expensive game. It has suddenly become a business," adds Sheth.
Table tennis prominence in US has also led to athletic immigration. Two former TT players of the Chinese national team have moved to the US and will be representing USA at the Tokyo Olympics.
Chinese Americans and Indian Americans are aspiring for their share of Olympic laurels, thanks to the passion and determination of a former India TT player who turned around ping pong, a sport that has largely been an afterthought in America, and built it into an Olympic level sport.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)
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