July 29, 2012

Before he set out to conquer the world, John Orozco took on a mountain. Last fall, about a month before the 2011 World Gymnastic Championships in Tokyo, one of the top U.S. medal hopes headed to Japan, risked livelihood and limb by barrelling down double black diamond slopes in Aspen, Colo. He is a tumbler by trade -- his teammates call him the Silent Ninja both for his Matrix-like ability to soar through the air and his knack for sneaking up on the competition -- but there was nothing graceful about his somersaults on skis. "Snow was getting in my T-shirt, my hands were frickin' numb and my face was wet. I was falling everywhere," says Orozco, who had never skied before. "My coach didn't know about it. He'd be like, 'So close to Worlds? What the hell?'"

Vitaly Marinitch, Orozco's coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, was stunned to learn of his star pupil's ski adventure -- but shouldn't have been. "He's pretty, how do you say it, crazy," says Marinitch. "But he's a natural at gymnastics."

The 19-year-old Orozco is the most polished all-around gymnast on the U.S. men's team, which is gunning for its first Olympic gold medal in the team competition (Monday at 11:30 a.m. ET) since 1984. He returned from that skiing trip to be the top American finisher (fifth) at the World Championships, helping the U.S. win the bronze medal. Then in June he won the U.S. national title in St. Louis, edging defending champ Danell Leyva by .05 of a point. At the Olympic trial three weeks later in San Jose, he finished second to Leyva by less than a point.

Orozco's talent and the buzz surrounding him in the lead-up to London -- he has been featured in a music video by the band Gym Class Heroes and name-checked in a speech by Michelle Obama -- suggest that his place in the Olympics was almost preordained. But as a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who's the son of a retired sanitation worker and a substitute teacher, Orozco is an outlier in a traditionally suburban, upper middle-class sport. For the Silent Ninja, finding success was no sure thing.


During one of his first trips to the Olympic Training Center as a young teenager, the dark-skinned Orozco declined a piece of chocolate cake offered by one of his peers. Another gymnast asked, "What, you don't eat your own kind?" Another time, one of his peers spoke up when Orozco was asked where home was: "He's from Africa or something." At an elite camp on the East Coast, a young child once told Orozco, "Get away from me, my mother said black people carry diseases."

Even in the New York City melting pot, kids at school would tell John, "Oh, gymnastics, that's gay." He'd just roll his eyes and ask them, "Can you do a backflip?"

Orozco was honing his gymnast skills long before he stepped foot in a gym. As a toddler he'd spend hours soaring to the ceiling on a doorway swing inside the cramped, 1½-story home he shared with his parents, three older brothers and a sister. Outside, he'd beg to be hoisted up to the 10-foot basketball rim and hang there, laughing, until his parents pleaded with him to come down. To build trust with his children, Orozco's father, Willie, had them jump from a low section of the roof into his arms on the ground below. Some of John's siblings would cry and refuse to jump. He never needed any coaxing to take the plunge. Says his mother, Damaris, "John was always, always fearless."

As a young child, Orozco would hang out in a nearby park and charge adults a dollar to watch him to do a backflip. Willie and Damaris channeled that boundless energy by enrolling John in classes for ballet, break dancing, Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) and taekwondo. John was a black belt in the Korean martial art by age nine. By then he had already been taking gymnastics lessons for two years. Willie had seen a flyer on a lamp post along his Harlem trash route advertising the lessons at a gym in Manhattan. A light bulb went off: John would be great at that, he thought. Says Damaris, "You'd see him out there on the mat and you're like, 'Uh oh, this is not just a casual sport.'"


From 2007 to '09, Orozco won three straight junior all-around national titles. At the 2009 nationals meet in Dallas, he cemented his status as an Olympic hopeful by winning five of the six disciplines: floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and high bar. By then, it was easy to forget that Willie and Damaris had almost taken John out of the sport just as he was getting started.

Shortly after he earned his taekwondo black belt, Orozco gave up his other after-school activities and began training at World Cup Gymnastics in Chappaqua, N.Y. But after a year there, his parents fell behind on the $400 monthly payments and told his coach, Carl Schrade, that they couldn't afford to keep John in the program.

"That kid was going to stay in the gym no matter what I had to do or say," says Schrade. "He was on another level." Schrade explained the situation to the gym's owner and got the tuition waived, with one condition: John could never skip practice.

From the time he was 10 until he left for the Olympic Training Center in 2010, Orozco missed just one day of practice: to attend his senior prom. To make sure John's heart was still in it, Damaris tempted him with other options as they made the hour-long drive from the Soundview Section of the Bronx -- where gangs, drug dealers and shrines for murder victims were commonplace -- to the ritzy suburb that Bill and Hillary Clinton have called home since 2000. "I'd offer him the movies, dinner at a restaurant, anything," Damaris says, "And he'd say, 'No, I have to go to practice.'"

Training sessions quickly escalated from twice a week to six days a week, sometimes seven, often twice a day. On days that he pulled double sessions, John would miss school and make up the work at night, getting home at 10 p.m. and staying up past 1 a.m. He lacked a social life and had few real friends. After-school activities were impossible to attend, and no one from the gym ever went to the Bronx to hang out. "He didn't seem to fit in anywhere," Damaris says. "Not having friends was really tough on John."

Sacrifice became a way of life for the entire family. To save gas, John's parents would stay at the gym while he practiced, whistling from the edge of the mat if they thought he was slacking. "We were always trying to get his attention to remind him we've come a long way," Willie says. "We'd tell him, 'If you want to play, get on your bike and go to the park. We could save some money.'"

Because flying was too expensive, the Orozcos drove to competitions as far away as Ohio, Michigan and Florida; in six years they put 237,000 miles on their Honda Odyssey before the transmission gave out. They stayed in hotels at competitions, but only in rooms that had a kitchen so they could avoid eating at restaurants. When their destination was farther than a day's drive, they'd sleep in the van at a rest stop or mall parking lot. John would sprawl out on a mattress in the back while his parents tried to rest in the front seats. "John had to be comfy, he was the one competing," Damaris says. "As long as he was all right, we were fine."

Because John was getting free tuition at World Cup, Damaris did her best to help out at the gym, putting together event programs and preparing food spreads for judges when the gym hosted competitions. One time she used a regular sewing needle and thread to repair the vinyl mats. "I had bloody fingers and holes in my hands," she says.

Damaris suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Her thumbs constantly ache, as do her hips; she's had both knees replaced and ankle reconstruction surgery. When John first started gymnastics, she struggled to walk and often needed a wheelchair to get around at his competitions. Her health and mobility steadily improved over the years -- "John's energy keeps me going," she says -- until this summer, when she spent 11 days in the hospital and nearly died of an internal infection.

It wasn't the first time John almost lost a parent. In 2007, John and Damaris were in San Jose for the Visa Championships when Willie, who was at home, suffered a stroke that left him unable to walk, talk or see out of his left eye. Unsure if his Dad was going to make it, and unable to rush back to New York City to see him, John decided to compete and won his first junior national all-around title.

Willie recovered, but was forced into early retirement just six months shy of collecting a full pension. John, without telling his parents why, got a job working birthday parties at World Cup Gymnastics to help out. On his first payday, he climbed into the back of the van and handed Willie and Damaris an envelope containing a check for a few hundred bucks. "Here," he said, "for the mortgage."

Says Willie, who has remortgaged the house five times to finance John's gymnastics career, "I could have died right there."


Around the time that Orozco went skiing last year, the Silent Ninja had another encounter with Mother Nature. At once intimidating (his shoulders stretch like a stockade fence) and disarming (he always speaks as if whispering), he slowly made his way across a field in Colorado, inching closer ... and closer ... until he had a wild animal sniffing the palm of his hand. "So cool," says Orozco, who captured the moment with an iPhone video. "It was the first time I'd ever been up close to a deer."

Orozco's fearlessness has gotten him into far more serious situations. When he was 12, he and his siblings were jumped by a group of men while they were heading home from church in the Bronx, a melee that landed one of John's brothers in the hospital. John ignored his siblings' orders to stay in the car and bolted into the fray. He was thrown under a car and suffered a broken wrist -- an injury that wasn't discovered until a few days later, when he couldn't grip the parallel bars at his first junior national championships.

Two years ago a more harrowing injury threatened to end John's career at age 17. Orozco ruptured his right Achilles' tendon on a dismount from the vault at the 2010 Visa Championships. A few days later, he sat in the office of a prominent orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan and was told he'd never compete again. "For that one second, John was a broken man," Willie says. But after being operated on by a different surgeon, John vowed to himself, "I don't care how hurt I am. I'm not stopping for anything.

"The only thing I'm afraid of is not becoming successful, or not being able to give my parents what they wish they could have given me when I was younger -- a nice house. I just want to get them out of the Bronx. I'm afraid of not being successful enough to help my family out."

That's why John posts videos of himself singing on YouTube: He wants a career in music or the movies some day -- he's been an extra on three episodes of Law & Order -- and who better than Internet strangers to provide honest feedback? So far the reviews of his crooning have been largely positive. "It makes me feel like gymnastics isn't the only talent that I have," Orozco says, "I can do other things if I want to."

When he's relaxing, Orozco loves to sit upside down on the couch, putting his feet where his back should be and dangling his head inches above the ground. He eats pizza, plays video games and daydreams in this repose, often all at once. "I visualize myself having the last routine, sticking my dismount and everyone going crazy because USA wins the team gold medal at the Olympics," he says. "Being so close to it now, it's a comforting feeling. But I can't get too comfortable."

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