A LITTLE over a decade ago, Rajul Sheth was spending nearly 50 hours a week fuelling cars at a gas station in Bay Area, California. Today, he is fuelling an American dream.
Table tennis is one of the few Olympic sports where the United States isn’t close to challenging the Chinese hegemony. But the last decade has seen a remarkable turnaround in a sport that was once considered a recreational activity played in basements and garages. And Sheth, who is originally from Vadodara, has been at the helm of this turnaround.
At the Rio Olympics next month, Sheth’s protege, 16-year-old Kanak Jha, will be among the youngest members of the American contingent. The teenager, whose mother Karuna is from Mumbai and father Arun grew up in Allahabad and Kolkata, is the flag-bearer of the table tennis team.
The Indian connect does not end there.
The India Community Centre (ICC) in California, which began as a modest four-table club in 2005, is now home to USA’s Olympic team, which is coached by Italian Massimo Costantini. Costantini, who was India’s national coach till 2012, is also the head coach at the ICC.
“It’s a big achievement for Kanak to be a part of the Olympics at this age. Since 2008, we have produced 24 players who have played for the US national team in junior, men and women categories,” Sheth told The Indian Express in an email interview. “We also had three Olympians at London Olympics from our centre. Apart from Kanak, two other girls who play here full time — Lily Zhang and Jiaqi Zheng — will also represent the US in Rio,” he said.
It’s a remarkable twist of fate for Sheth. A former Gujarat state champion, he gave up his playing career and moved to the US with his wife in 2002. Unable to find a suitable job as a mechanical engineer, he worked at a gas station, where a chance meeting with former US table tennis player Michael Green reignited his table tennis ambitions.
Green was wearing one of his table tennis T-shirts that evening in 2003. Considering that there was no professional “ping pong” culture in the US, Sheth was curious to see a man with a table tennis print on his T-shirt. He asked Green where he could play the sport in the area. Unaware of his exploits with the paddle back in India, the American ignored him at first. But Sheth was persistent and eventually persuaded Green to take him to a local club.
Slowly, his reputation as a table tennis player in the locality grew, getting him private coaching assignments. He quit his job at the gas station in 2005 and launched the ICC table tennis club. It was a modest beginning, with about six children and four tables. A decade on, the ICC is spread over 10,500 square feet and is considered to be the biggest table tennis facility in North America.
As the centre grew, so did Sheth’s ambitions. He got coaches from India and China, since most of the players were expats from these two countries. “During summer camps, we invite and sponsor players and coaches from India and China. At present, I have 17 visitors from India for 11 weeks of summer camp,” said Sheth, who is now the director of ICC table tennis club.
The success of ICC players forced the country’s table tennis circuit to take note. Zhang’s bronze in singles at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, is seen as a turning point for the club. It was a rare medal for the US at a major international event and changed the approach towards the sport, leading to the release of more funds.
Jha, one of the most promising talents from ICC, is fast gaining prominence in the US. He was invited by New York Mets to throw the first pitch on his birthday. Last April, when he was 15, he became the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history, and has been training in Sweden since then.
By the time the qualification period ends next week, Jha may not be the youngest member of the American contingent. Gymnasts Laurie Hernandez and Ragan Smith — both 15 — are likely to make the cut for Rio as well. At London 2012, the youngest US competitor was swimmer Katie Ledecky, then 15 years old.
But Jha isn’t concerned about this. “It feels amazing to qualify for Rio. I don’t want to think much about being the youngest member as age does not matter. I just want to play my best in Rio,” said Jha.