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For Jake Dalton, John Orozco, It’s A Longer Road To Rio

By Chrös McDougall | April 07, 2016, 1:10 p.m. (ET)

Jake Dalton (L) and John Orozco pose for portraits at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles.

For John Orozco, the tear was instantaneous. Jake Dalton’s battle was drawn out, a cruel game of reaching for a goal that remained just out of reach.

Both 2012 Olympic gymnasts, Orozco re-tore his right Achilles tendon in June 2015 and Dalton underwent shoulder surgery for a partially torn labrum on Sept. 1.

The injuries were agonizing in their own way for the gymnasts, but with four months to go before the 2016 Olympic Games begin in Rio de Janeiro, both men are healthy, and they’ll compete this weekend at the Pacific Rim Championships in Everett, Washington.

“It feels good to be back,” Orozco said. “I’m ready.”

Dalton, 24, and Orozco, 23, join fellow Olympian Sam Mikulak on the six-person U.S. team, along with Donnell Whittenburg, Alex Naddour and Eddie Penev. They’ll be trying to defend their title at the biennial competition between Pacific Rim countries, including Australia, Canada, China and Japan.

Team and individual all-around finals begin at 7 p.m. Friday, and top finishers in each apparatus advance to event finals on Sunday evening.

This weekend marks the second competition back for both Dalton and Orozco, but it’s their first major event. Dalton competed in three apparatuses at February’s Winter Cup, while Orozco won the all-around title at the lower-level Elite Team Cup in March.

The timing is just right for them to be rounding back into form.

This weekend begins a rush toward the Olympic Games, continuing with the Olympic test event April 16-22 in Rio, where both will compete, followed by the Men’s P&G Gymnastics Championships June 3-5 in Hartford, Connecticut, and then the U.S. Olympic Team Trials June 23-26 in St. Louis.

Each competition will be one step further from a painful period for the two gymnasts.

About three weeks before the 2015 P&G Championships, Dalton, a two-time individual medalist at the world championships, noticed a cyst on the back of his left shoulder, related to the partially torn labrum. It was pinching a nerve and causing weakness in his arm.

“There were certain things where it would just give out,” Dalton said. “Rings was almost impossible to do, and certain other things were pretty unsafe.”

A week before leaving for the U.S. championships in Indianapolis, Dalton had most of the fluid removed with a needle. The procedure, combined with a few days of rest, helped. But after some pre-meet training in Indianapolis, he withdrew.

“It just wasn’t ready,” he said.

A petition to try out for the world championships team at a coming training camp was denied, ending his season. Two weeks later, he underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum.

Orozco’s injury history is a little more complicated.

He first tore his right Achilles tendon in August 2010, only to battle back to compete again 11 months later and make the 2011 world championships team.

Then, after winning his first U.S. all-around title in 2012 and competing at the Olympic Games, he tore his left ACL and meniscus that October, requiring another nine months of rehab.

Still, Orozco came back again, competing for the first time that next July and making the 2013 world championships team. A strong 2014 season appeared to have his career back on track.

Then, in June 2015, Orozco re-tore his right Achilles during a training session. The first two injuries were trying, but this one was different. It occurred just five months after his mother, Damaris, died unexpectedly following knee surgery.

The Orozcos’ story was widely told ahead of the 2012 Games: Parents William and Damaris sacrificing so young John could rise from a working-class Bronx neighborhood to become an Olympic gymnast. John’s admiration for his parents was unmistakable when he talked about them. Even after he moved to Colorado in 2011 to live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center they were the center of his life.

So the loss was devastating for John, and the injury compounded that. There were times when he wanted to crawl into a corner and hide. But he never did.

“One of my mantras is I didn't come this far to only come this far,” he said. “I apply that to all facets of my life, especially in the gym.”

So, once again, he began rehabbing.

Dalton arrives in Everett slightly ahead of Orozco in recovery — a product, he now recognizes, of having surgery earlier and not after the world championships.

A “blessing in disguise,” he said.

Dalton had regained all of his gymnastics skills by early March, when the two gymnasts appeared together at the Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles, and was working to regain the rest of his strength.

“My range of motion is good, and I’ve done all of my skills, doing routines and halves again,” he said. “So I feel like a gymnast again.”

Orozco listed himself as being at 85 percent of his potential.

“It’s mostly just building confidence on floor and vault to really go for the hard, difficult skills,” he said.

The U.S. men’s gymnastics landscape has changed in the last four years, and making the Olympic team will be as competitive as ever. But for Dalton and Orozco, simply having the opportunity to compete for those Olympic spots is something to savor.

“I have all these things I could be sad about,” Orozco said, “but where my life is now compared to where it was 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, is a drastic difference, and I’m happy to be where I am now, no matter what happens.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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