ST. LOUIS -- When Danell Leyva unseated Jon Horton as the U.S. men's all-around gymnastics champion last summer, a new era of dominance was seemingly beginning.
Not so fast.
Though Leyva was characteristically brilliant Saturday at the Visa Championships in St. Louis, scoring a full point better than he did last year, 19-year-old John Orozco overcame a two-point deficit in the final two events to unseat the all-around champion by the slightest of margins — 184.850 to 184.800. Little known Sam Mikulak was third at 182.850 while Horton, coming back from a broken foot eight months ago, was fourth at 181.700.
Immediately after the competition, Leyva was nothing but upbeat as he joked with Horton.
“Of course I’m happy,” Leyva said, seemingly confused as to why he would be anything but.
“I hope not,” Orozco said when asked if Leyva looked upset. “I wouldn’t be if I was second. It doesn’t really matter; this is USA. This is to show how strong we are as a team, it’s not about winning.”
That tone had been set ever since Horton and his 2008 teammates stood on the bronze-medal podium at the Beijing Games: Team USA is going for a gold medal in London, Horton told anyone who would listen. Orozco’s bona fide rise is the latest sign that it could actually happen.
“I think this is going to be one of the best USA men’s Olympic teams we’ve ever had,” men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said.
If the U.S. men are to win their first Olympic team gold since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, a strong performance from Orozco could be the difference.
The Bronx-bred gymnast, who now trains at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, has been on the radar since 2009, when he won six of the possible seven gold medals at the U.S. junior championships — his only blemish was a fifth-place finish in vault.
Orozco was officially one to watch last year, when he finished an impressive third in the all-around at the senior Visa Championships — behind Leyva and Horton. But Leyva was still considered the man to beat this weekend in St. Louis.
And that still appeared to be the case as Leyva built a commanding 2.050 lead after the third rotation Saturday (scores from Thursday and Saturday were combined). But Orozco came chipping back.
Whereas Leyva and Horton make up for their shortcomings in certain events by dominating others, Orozco is more balanced across the board. So after Leyva opened with his three highest-scoring events, Orozco went to work closing the gap in the final three rotations.
Still, going into the final rotation, the story appeared to still be: Leyva reigns and Orozco continues his rise. Instead, Orozco closed out the competition with what he called “definitely the best floor routine I’ve ever done” and erased Leyva’s 0.900 lead.
“I saw the score and I couldn’t believe it, .05, wow,” Orozco said. “It really shows how strong USA is going to be.”
Team USA is the key for the U.S. male gymnasts going into the London Games. Although some could certainly compete for individual medals — Leyva is the reigning world champion in parallel bars, for example — the team competition is what they all really want.
“I don’t even want it to come across as cocky, but we know we can win,” Horton said. “Japan is ridiculously good, China is going to be ridiculously good. I think we’re ridiculously good too, and we have to believe in that, and if we don’t believe in that why even go.”
If it hadn’t already been established, this weekend’s meet ended with the assumption that Leyva, Horton and Orozco are almost certain to make the 2012 Olympic Team, with at least five or six others in serious contention for the other two spots.
|Danell Leyva and Jonathan Horton hanging out in the
mixed zone after competition.
“His learning curve is practically vertical,” Mazeika said. “The amount of improvement he’s made over the last two years is just phenomenal.”
Orozco has already gotten his share of attention in recent weeks. On May 14, when about 100 Team USA athletes convened in Dallas, First Lady Michelle Obama met Orozco and then referenced him by name in a speech. She was there to announce a collaboration between the U.S. Olympic Committee and her “Let’s Move” initiative against childhood obesity.
Mrs. Obama relayed the story about how his parents used to shuttle him to gymnastics practice and how he used his first paycheck toward his family's mortgage.
A few weeks later, Gym Class Heroes released a music video for their song “The Fighter” that is loosely based on Orozco’s life story. In it, Orozco is seen working out and doing gymnastics skills in the Bronx and at the Olympic Training Center. There is also footage of Orozco competing as a kid and of his Achilles’ tendon tear while vaulting at the 2010 Visa Championships.
“They were brainstorming ideas for the song and the theme of the song and everything, so I guess (the producer) thought I fit perfectly,” Orozco said. “So he contacted me and my mom, and I said ‘Of course!' "
Now the question is how many more people will know of him come Aug. 7, the day the last Olympic gymnastics medal will be given out.
“He doesn’t have a weakness really, he’s just a phenomenal gymnast,” Horton said. “The one thing that you’ll notice about him is he gets in this zone and you can't affect him, you can’t break it. The guy just knows how to compete.”