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Young Guns | Nikhil Kumar, a young Indian American table tennis paddler eyeing Olympics glory

Young Guns | Nikhil Kumar, a young Indian American table tennis paddler eyeing Olympics glory

Vishal Sharma

Published: 30 July 2020 7:45 AM GMT

Nikhil Kumar an Indian American is the second youngest table tennis paddler from U.S. as qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at the age of 17 followed by compatriot Kanak Jha, who qualified at 16 for Rio, 2016 and now qualified for his second Olympic stint.

Nikhil Kumar who hails from California, United States is an Indo-American professional table tennis player, playing for almost seven years since 2013. He was born and brought up in U.S only and stays with his parents in San Jose, California.

Kumar is currently the U.S. 2nd seeded table tennis player, he won one of the Olympic qualifier tournament held on 1st march on the men’s side, with Xin grabbing the second spot.

The U.S. table tennis team has been filled with six elite players including Lily Zhang, Wang Huijing, Liu Juon, former Chinese player Zuou Xin and Indian Americans Kanak Jha and Nikhil Kumar.

Nikhil and Kanak both have qualified for Men's singles event too for Tokyo whereas Xin will only be playing the team event.

The 17-year-old, Nikhil Kumar caught up with The Bridge in an exclusive Interview directly from the U.S., where he discussed his sporting journey, inspiration and goals for his first-ever Olympics.

Here are the Excerpts:

The Bridge: You are currently one of the young emerging table tennis paddlers from U.S., could you please take us through your journey so far, from the road to Olympics?

Nikhil Kumar: I started playing table tennis when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I was introduced to the sport when I joined summer camps at the India Community Center (ICC) in Milpitas, California. It was just one of the many different activities I was involved in. I started training more actively at the age of eight with Anil Kashyap. Coincidentally Massimo Constantini joined ICC as the head coach around the same time. ICC had other coaches who had played in China and so I had the opportunity to train with some of the best players in the USA. My current coach - Tao Wenzhang -- moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 2015, and I started to train with him at ICC. I played my first men's World Championships in 2017 and was lucky to have Joerg Bitzigeio take over the national team as director. He has been a great guide to me since then and opened up more opportunities to train and play in international competitions. Last year I was part of the team that won the gold medal at the Pan American Games. Earlier this year I qualified to represent the USA at the upcoming Olympics by winning the trials. Looking back it is not something that I would have imagined in my wildest dreams.

The Bridge: What sort of struggle have you faced in your life? How did you overcome out of those situations?

Nikhil Kumar: Table tennis is not a mainstream sport in the USA. I was lucky to have had some of the folks I mentioned above around to be able to support me. My parents supported me driving me to the club for training every day. Going to full-time school and trying to do well in school while training as much as I could be always a challenge. But the biggest issue was the lack of international competitions in the country. Particularly in recent years, I had to coordinate my school schedules with international schedules and participate in competitions in Europe and Asia. Besides, there was no sponsorship for any of these. So the burden mostly fell on my parents to support me in this. I loved competing in the ITTF tournaments, but staying away from school for weeks at a time was also challenging as I kept up with homework and tests.

The Bridge: What were the biggest challenges you have faced in your sporting career?

Nikhil Kumar: From the point of view of table tennis, I have had my share of wins and losses. There were a few competitions where I wished I had done better, but in the end, I lost out to someone stronger. Physically, I had challenges with growth spurts causing aches and pains from time to time. But my biggest challenge came earlier this year as we headed to the Olympic trials. Having played extremely well during the year, I was quite hopeful of making it. But as we got closer there were uncertainties thrown by way of changes in procedures etc that put a lot of pressure on me. There was a point in time at the beginning of the year when my coach advised me to take a break because of the pressure I was putting on myself. However, it all worked out in the end as my parents, coaches helped me get into the best shape to compete at the trials.

The Bridge: Who is your inspiration and why?

Nikhil Kumar: I don’t have a specific player, but I have been inspired by watching the members of the Chinese National team train and compete. Last year, I had a chance to practice with them here in the US and watch them in action from close.

The Bridge: Which of your skills make you apt for sports? How did you get interested in table tennis?

Nikhil Kumar: I think my competitive edge and my attitude to always want to win is what enables me to be apt for sports. At a young age, I was exposed to different sports— swimming, soccer, basketball, table tennis. I continued to play soccer and table tennis competitively. I got more interested in table tennis after I won some competitions and my coaches encouraged me. All of them put in a lot of effort into me, and my successes motivated all of us more.

Nikhil along the coach Tao Wenzhang Nikhil along the coach Tao Wenzhang

The Bridge: Who is your coach? What club currently are you training at?

Nikhil Kumar: My personal coach is Tao Wenzhang. My club is called Spartans Table Tennis and we are in Santa Clara, California.

The Bridge: When did you make your debut at the National and International level?

Nikhil Kumar: I began playing national tournaments when I was 9 years old. I won my age events at the national level from early on and was soon competing in the higher age groups as well. My first international competition was the ITTF junior cadet competition in Canada when I was 11. It was in conjunction with the Hopes qualification that year which I lost out. However, the following year I competed at the Swedish Junior & Cadet along with Safir. Since then I have been competing in about 3-4 international competitions each year all over the world. In 2017, I finished as runner up at the US Men's Nationals for the first time.

The Bridge: Being one of the youngest men’s table tennis players to ever qualify for the Olympics, how does it feel?

Nikhil Kumar: I feel great to have qualified for the Olympics. For me, being one of the younger ones does not make a difference because throughout my career I have been facing opponents and having teammates that were at least a couple of years older than me. Moreover, many players are younger than me who are much stronger than me.

The Bridge: Most difficult match you have won in your career so far?

Nikhil Kumar: My most difficult match I have won so far happened last year in the 2019 Pan-America Games in Lima Peru. In the semi-finals of the team event, we had to beat Brazil who were much stronger than us. However, after a comeback win in the doubles, our team’s chances rested on my match against Gustavo Tsuboi from Brazil, who was ranked top 30 worlds for men’s at that time. I was lucky to have been able to bring out my best and win that match, which contributed to our team’s win in the semi-finals.

Nikhil with mate Kanak Jha posing after winning gold at Pan American games, 2019. Nikhil with mate Kanak Jha posing after winning gold at Pan American games, 2019.

The Bridge: How has the lockdown affected your training? What is your schedule now?

Nikhil Kumar: This lockdown has been a huge change for me, but now I have been able to adjust. It has limited opportunities for training and competition. At the beginning of the lockdown, I was practising at home almost every day with a robot. Recently, the situation has been better, so now I have been able to go to the club and practice. I have also been focusing on physical training. I spend the morning training on the table and then work on physical fitness in the evening. In between, I am busy doing school work and preparing for examinations.

The Bridge: Your achievements in the journey so far?

Nikhil Kumar:

· 2020 Olympic Trials – First Place

· 2020 ITTF Portugal Open – Men’s U21 Bronze medalist

· 2019 Pan American Games – (Teams) Gold medalist

· 2019 US National Championships – Second Place in Men’s Singles/Doubles, First in Mixed Doubles

· 2019 Pan American Championships – (Teams) Bronze medalist

· 2019 World Championships Team Member

· 2019 Pan American Cup – Quarter Finalist

· 2018 Pan American Championships – (Teams) Silver medalist

· 2018 World Championships Team Member

· 2017 US Nationals Men’s Singles – Second Place

· 2017 World Championships Team Member

The Bridge: How are you preparing for Olympics?

Nikhil Kumar: At the moment I am just making the most of the situation at home and trying to practice as much as I can with many different high-level players around here. I’m hoping that next summer I will be able to travel to Europe and practice in Germany with many professional players in preparation for the Olympic Games.

The Bridge: What’s your next big goal/target towards your sporting career?

Nikhil Kumar: My main goal is, of course, to be in the best shape I can be for the Olympics and produce the best results I can. Outside of that, I want to get into the top 100 for men’s ranking.

Interestingly, Nikhil's coach Tao Wenzhang also caught up with Vishal from U.S. in a small free-wheeling chat, he disclosed what he feels about Nikhil's attainments so far in the journey as he is with Kumar for the last six years since 2014.

The Bridge: For how long have you been coaching Nikhil?

Tao Wenzhang: I have been coaching Nikhil for close to six years now, since the end of 2014.

The Bridge: Are you happy with Nikhil's achievement after all he is an Olympian now?

Tao Wenzhang: Overall, Nikhil has been meeting my expectations for him, with a couple of surprises when he achieved beyond what I anticipated. I am happy to see him grow into the dedicated young athlete he is now.

The Bridge: Is it going the way you planned for his journey. Are you satisfied with his performances so far?

Tao Wenzhang: Throughout Nikhil's career, we've always set plans and goals for the short to long term in order to have direction and guidance on what to work on, what we want to achieve and where we want to be. I'm satisfied and proud of what he's accomplished so far, especially with table tennis not being one of the mainstream sports in the U.S. where we could get a lot of support and resources, being able to bring up an Olympian is definitely something that requires hard work and determination from both coaches and the student.

The Bridge: What do you expect from Nikhil for the Tokyo Olympics in the aspect of performance and experience?

Tao Wenzhang: I hope Nikhil doesn't treat his Olympic journey as a fun trip or merely to gain that "Olympic experience", but rather put in all he can to give the U.S. and his supporters a surprise.

Nikhil is presently training at home at it’s best, sometimes in the club too and curiously waiting for the Tokyo Olympics which got postponed till next year due to Covid-19. No matter how strong and higher rank the opponent is going to be but he wishes to perform at his best putting his heart and soul in the tournaments ahead along with ultimate goal Olympic.

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