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Olympics 2012: Team USA's Athletes Gunning for London Gold

Rebel With a Cause: Gymnast John Orozco

Jesse Hyde


John Orozco
Seth Wenig, File/AP
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Growing up in the Bronx, the fifth son of a sanitation crew supervisor, John Orozco took his fair share of abuse for choosing gymnastics over something more macho like boxing or football. Even the garbage men who worked for his dad made fun of him, calling him a "fag in a leotard." Orozco ignored them, and the homophobic jocks at high school who called him the same and worse, because he had never really chosen gymnastics. From the time he was a boy, when his father put him on the roof of their small cottage on the Bronx River and told him to jump down into his arms, Orozco had felt a strong pull towards the gym – to test the limits of his body against the force of gravity. Besides, his father had more or less chosen the sport for him one morning on his garbage route, finding a flier attached to a lamppost advertising a free lesson at a gym in nearby Westchester County. John's dad drove him the 25 miles in their rickety mini-van only to learn that the class was already full. "We've come all this way," his father pled. "Can't you just give him a chance?"

By the time the first lesson was over, the coach had changed his mind. Not only had a space in his gym suddenly opened up for the nine-year-old, he'd waive tuition too.

"John is one of the most naturally gifted gymnasts I've ever seen," says Tim Daggett, an Olympic gold medalist who will call gymnastics for NBC in London. "Even at an elite level, when you learn a new technique it can sometimes take a year to learn it. I've seen John pick up something in an hour, in a few turns."

That natural gift propelled Orozco to three consecutive junior national all-around titles until he tore his Achilles tendon in 2010 during a dismount at a tournament in Connecticut. The prolonged rehab forced Orozco to develop the one thing Daggett says he lacked early on: a killer work ethic. While he waited for his tendon to heal Orozco turned his worst event – the pommel horse – into one of his best.

Orozco rarely sees the Bronx these days; he spends most of his time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, which has been its own kind of education. When he first got to the mostly white and largely conservative city, a fellow gymnast asked him where he was from. Before he could answer, someone answered for him: "He's from Africa or something." On another occasion, a teammate offered him chocolate cake, and when John politely declined, his teammate asked, "What, you don't eat your own kind?"

Now that Orozco is the reigning national all around champion, he's rarely taunted – about his race or anything else. The kids who once called him gay now try to message him on Facebook, and Orozco dreams of one day opening a gym in the Bronx to encourage more minority kids to give gymnastics a shot. "I hope to show people that just because a sport isn't as socially accepted, it doesn't mean they shouldn't do it," he says.

Daggett says Orozco is one of six gymnasts around the world with a good shot at an all around medal, and that he has a long shot of taking the gold. "Kohei Uchimura of Japan might be the best gymnast of all time, so it would take a miracle for John to do that," Daggett says. "But John is a gymnast who absolutely rises to the occasion, so anything's possible. And if that happens, watch out. He's got the sort of charisma and personality that he could really make gymnastics take off."

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