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John Orozco: From the Bronx to Britain

By Doug Williams | July 29, 2012, 12 p.m. (ET)

John OrozcoFour years ago, 15-year-old John Orozco was in front of a TV at his home in the Bronx, watching the best gymnasts in the world compete at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

At the time, he hoped he’d have a chance to compete at the 2012 London Games, but he knew everything would have to come together perfectly.

Now Orozco can look back at the last four years and know he nailed his performance like a perfectly executed floor exercise.

At 19, he’s a part of a U.S. men’s team that some believe has the best chance of winning since the American men claimed their first (and only) team gold in Los Angeles in 1984.

“It’s really different,” Orozco said in mid-July from his room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, just before leaving for England. “I’m not just sitting there hoping it will happen. It’s happened for me now. It’s been a long journey.”

For Orozco, that journey entailed moving to the Olympic Training Center two years ago, making the jump from the Junior National Team, overcoming a torn Achilles tendon in 2010 and then recovering to help the U.S. team earn a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships while finishing fifth in the all-around competition.

This year, Orozco not only secured his spot on the U.S. team for London by finishing second in the all-around at the Olympic Trials in San Jose, but also he won the all-around national title at the Visa Championships in St. Louis in June, narrowly outpointing defending champion and Olympic teammate Danell Leyva.

It’s been an eventful four years, but the last two have been especially rewarding for Orozco, who’s drawn attention not only for his quick rise to the top of U.S. gymnastics, but also for being able to rise out of a rough Bronx neighborhood. Much of that credit goes to his parents, who even though they struggled, they supported him every step of the way since he took up the sport at age 8.

“It’s been tough coming from the Bronx,” Orozco said. “But I knew when I left the Bronx it was for the better and when I left my family it was because I wanted to follow my goal and follow my dream and I knew that leaving my family would help. …

“Coming to the Olympic Training Center has definitely proven to be a good choice for me and I’m happy that I did it because I don’t think if I wouldn’t have done it I would be where I am today.”

Orozco was able to move to the Olympic Training Center in large part through the help of Hilton, a U.S. Olympic sponsor. The Team Hilton HHonors program, in fact, provides funds to Orozco for living and training expenses.

Orozco, who decided to bypass college gymnastics, has seen his proficiency accelerate rapidly under coach Vitaly Marinitch while working with the county’s top gymnasts.

That atmosphere, as much as anything, has pushed Orozco to a higher level.

“When you get in the gym and you see all the other athletes at the same talent level as you it really motivates you to keep pushing,” he said. “You try to have friendly competitions and try to one up each other and keep pushing and motivating each other in practice so you don’t get discouraged. If you have a bunch of guys like that in the same gym it’s contagious.”

Orozco said he gained confidence at the World Championships in Japan last year and said it was a learning experience. Since then, he’s upgraded all of his routines.

“Hopefully, it will show,” he said.

Now, too, he now knows what it’s going to be like “on the big stage” of the Games — the same event he watched on TV four years ago when he was one of the nation’s top juniors.

“I think it’s going to be really cool to be around all the other gymnasts that are so talented that I’ve seen on TV at the last Olympics,” Orozco said. “Not so much star struck, but I’m just happy and fortunate that I can compete with them.”

Orozco is one of two 19-year-olds on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, along with Sam Mikulak. They join 26-year-old veteran Jonathan Horton, who was part of the U.S. team that took home a bronze from Beijing four years ago (he also earned an individual silver medal in the horizontal bar) and two 20-year-olds in Leyva and Jake Dalton.

Orozco isn’t predicting any medals for himself or the team, but he is optimistic. He said if he can just concentrate fully on his own performance then good things will happen.

“Of course every athlete going to the Olympics hopes that he or she medals at the Games,” he said. “But I’m not trying to put any great expectations on myself or the team even. I know if we do good it’s not going to be that far fetched to win a medal. My goal is just to hit my routines, and if I do that, if I can hit my routines to the best of my abilities, I think I’ll do well.”

For Damaris Orozco, John’s mother, it’s hard to believe her son is about to complete a dream. She said from the moment he first walked into the gym for lessons as a boy, “his eyes just glowed.” “He saw all this equipment and all these kids and to him it looked liked a playground,” she said. “He took to it immediately. He would see it (a routine or move) and he would do it.”

What followed were years of Damaris driving her son to practices and making family sacrifices to allow him to do something he loved.

Orozco’s story has been one of perseverance, hard work and making the most of his talent and opportunities — and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Damaris Orozco said a film crew spent several hours in mid-July at their home in the Bronx, as part of a storytelling project about some of the athletes on the 2012 Olympic Team.

And, when athletes gathered at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Media Summit in Dallas in May, First Lady Michelle Obama talked about Orozco in her speech, citing his parents’ determination and support and John’s decision to give his first paycheck from that gym — where he worked as a teen — to his parents to help with their mortgage after his father, William, was laid off from his job with the New York sanitation department.

Orozco was shocked to hear the First Lady — whom he had met just before her speech — mention him.

“That was like really, really cool,” he said. “I didn’t know she was going to talk about me in her speech so I was kind of thrown off by it, but I was really flattered at the same time. Not a lot of people can say that their story was mentioned in a speech by Michelle Obama.”

Damaris and William Orozco will have an opportunity to see their son compete in the Olympic Games in London.

“We are still like floating,” Damaris said. “We can’t believe it’s here, it’s happening, it’s now. You know, when we were on the road to get here, it seemed so long, and then all of a sudden here we are. He did it.

“In 2010 when he got hurt, we all felt like, ‘Uh oh,’ you know? But he didn’t give up. He pushed forward and he did it. He still made his goals. Amazing.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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