Kanak Jha and Lily Zhang continue to lead the next generation of U.S. table tennis players, and now they’ll do so in Tokyo.
Both qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by merit of being the highest ranked American in their gender in the February ITTF World Rankings. Jha is 25th, while Zhang is 28th. His career-high ranking to date was 22nd in September 2019, while hers was 26th in January 2020.
Zhang, who is still just 23, will be competing at her third Olympic Games while Jha, 19, is headed to his second.
The two athletes, who hail from the Bay Area, are the first of six table tennis players that will make up Team USA. In Tokyo, they’ll aim to win Team USA’s first Olympic medal in the sport that has traditionally been dominated by China since its Olympic debut in 1988.
Zhang, who made her Olympic debut in London as a 16-year-old, told TeamUSA.org a medal “would mean the absolute world.”
“I think it would help improve table tennis in America,” the native of Palo Alto, California, said, “and that’s something that I would really love to see one day.”
Since graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2018, Zhang has relocated to Germany, where she plays in a professional table tennis league between international tournaments.
Jha, who hails from Milpitas, California, has been competing at the top levels since 2014 but his rise to prominence began in 2016, when he became the first athlete born in the 2000s to make a U.S. Olympic Team. Two years after that he won a bronze medal at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, becoming the first American man in history to win a table tennis medal at either an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.
The only other American to come home with Olympic hardware? That’d be Zhang, who at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014 also won a bronze medal, making her the first American medalist in the sport.
“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,” Jha told TeamUSA.org from Argentina.
In the years that followed, Jha has continued to establish himself, and in July 2019 he became the first American to four-peat in men’s singles at the national championships.
Zhang, meanwhile, won her fifth national title last summer and four gold medals at the Pan American Championships, accomplishments that preceded another major feat in October, when she became the first American to reach the semifinals at the prestigious ITTF Women's World Cup.
“It was the best tournament of my life, I have to say, and I think it’s just really encouraging and motivating to me that things like this are possible,” Zhang told TeamUSA.org. “If I can reach the semifinals in a World Cup, then why not world championships or the Olympics ultimately?”
In October, Jha and Zhang helped their respective national teams earn quotas for the Tokyo Games, ensuring that the U.S. will have three-person teams for the men’s and women’s events, with two of the athletes from each gender also competing in singles.
This will mark the second time the U.S. has sent a full men’s and women’s team to the Olympic Games, with the first being four years ago in Rio.