Kanak Jha celebrates a point at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 on Oct. 10, 2018 in Buenos Aires.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Kanak Jha has a knack for setting himself apart.
When he qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, the table tennis player became the first U.S. athlete born in the 2000s to make an Olympic team.
Once the team was finalized a few months later, Jha was the youngest of all 555 athletes on Team USA.
Now, two years later, he has made history once more.
When Jha won the men’s table tennis bronze medal Wednesday evening at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, he became the first American man in history to win a table tennis medal at either an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.
“That’s unbelievable,” Jha, now 18, said of his feat. “The U.S has never been very strong in table tennis, so for me to win a medal for the U.S. is amazing.”
Four years ago, Lily Zhang won bronze in women’s table tennis at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, becoming the first American table tennis player to medal at an Olympic event.
Jha is confident the success he and Zhang have brought to their country will only help the sport grow and the Americans improve.
“For me and Lily to both win a medal shows, that the U.S. is slowly getting better and can hopefully do well at the senior level in the future."
“I think the sport will gain a lot of popularity. Table tennis is not so well-known in the U.S. as a serious sport, so I hope it becomes more popular with these results.”
Jha and Zhang also hold the distinction of being the only Americans ever to compete at the Olympic Games prior to the Youth Olympic Games.
The experience the Milpitas, California, native gained both from and since Rio helped him reach the podium in Buenos Aires, which he called “a dream” leading into the Games.
“I knew all these players before and these are the best juniors, really, in the world,” he explained. “I had to play my best match of my life in order to win and I think today I was in very good form mentally and physically, and I’m just so happy now.”
“There’s not many chances to play these big events and I’ve been fortunate to play all three of them now, so it gives me a lot of experience, especially when I have to play these big matches like just now,” he said after winning bronze, his first medal at any of the three Games. “Hopefully I can also play better at those Games as well in the future.”
As the only Olympian on the 87-athlete U.S. team competing in Argentina, there were big expectations for Jha to succeed at the Games. He handled the pressure like a champ, winning his preliminary stage matches earlier this week with scores of 4-0, 4-2, 4-0, followed by round of 16 and quarterfinal wins of 4-1 on Tuesday.
He was on a roll.
Jha’s semifinal against Wang Chuqin of China on Wednesday put a stop to that momentum, with Jha losing 4-0 and never scoring more than seven points in the first-to-11 sets.
“He’s a very strong player, but I did feel I could play a bit better than I did,” Jha said. “At first, when I lost the semi, I was very disappointed. I just tried to rest, recover, not think about the match and just focus on the third-place match.”
His quest to put the semifinal loss behind him and start the bronze-medal match strong didn’t go as planned, with Jha falling 11-6 in his first set against Yun-Ju Lin of Chinese Taipei.
“I was thinking too much and not really in the zone at all,” he recalled. “Luckily after the first set I just said, I need to refocus now, and then I managed to take a 3-1 lead.”
The excitement of knowing he was so close to a medal got to him and Jha dropped a lead in the fifth set, with Lin taking that one 11-8.
Jha said the disappointment of losing that set also got to him, causing him to quickly drop the sixth, 11-4.
With one shot left and everything on the line, his mindset changed.
“Me and my coach just sat and said just give everything because this is one set, this is it,” Jha said. “It doesn’t matter if you lose everything now, just go for everything, and I did.”
It was close, but Jha came out victorious, winning the seventh and final set, 11-9, along with the match, the medal and a spot in history.