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'I can just see myself at the Olympics'
Fate came on a flyer.
It was a simple piece of paper sitting there like some map the father couldn’t read, not in its entirety, but it still captured his imagination enough to think this was somehow meant for his 8-year-old son. In the most real but unseeable of ways this random decision to take notice of a general call for recreational gymnasts 11 years ago led to what is perhaps the best chance for a gold medal in London for US Men’s Gymnastics.
William Orozco, a sanitation worker from the Bronx, whose wife was a homemaker and whose son was a vivaciously athletic kid searching for the right sport, took that piece of paper home and had a conversation that would change their lives.
“He went home and discussed it with my mother,” John Orozco said. “I was doing martial arts at the time, and he thought it was good to expand my range of sports.”
Today, Orozco is a 19-year-old gymnast who many see as America’s best chance to reclaim some glory in a sport traditionally dominated in this country by women. Back then he was just a skinny kid with a huge personality who, while studying martial arts, would effortlessly do standing flip after standing flip.
That was just fun. But gymnastics — from that very first moment in the gym — was so much more. It wasn’t just sport. It felt like destiny.
“I went in and I remember having the time of my life,” Orozco said. “I just loved it in the gym. It felt like home. I didn’t want to leave. (My dad) said, ‘You know, I think he really loves this sport. I think it’s going to be a great thing for him. I think we can do more with him. I think he can go a lot further in this sport.’”
He was right. The coaches at the gym knew it, too. They could help the young child learn the basics, but already it was clear his talent went beyond them. Far beyond. He needed help of a higher order, a place up to the task of honing and elevating all that natural talent into a possible Olympian.
The next stop was at World Cup Gymnastics in Chappaqua, NY, a club that served as a milestone on Orozco’s journey to the Olympics.
“The day he came in he was just flipping up and down the floor — for such a young kid, he had so much power and potential,” said Jason Hebert, the gym’s director, and along with Carl Schrade, one of Orozco’s first coaches. “We knew right from the beginning. At first he seemed one of those talented tumblers, and then when he was on the other five events, he was just as talented. That’s very rare.
“John seemed to have the right ingredients of strength and flexibility and determination and no fear whatsoever. It’s difficult to find an athlete who has all of those attributes. If they’re missing one of those qualities, they’ll never be at the elite level.”
The young kid had “elite” written all over him. But none of this is to say it was easy. Snow or rain, his mother drove him every day to the gym — often an hour drive each way. He was so talented, Hebert remembers, that he often bridled at focusing on technique and form. He simply wanted to unleash that talent, not spend tedious time learning how to dress it up in its proper form. It was expensive, too, and the Orozco family was rich in commitment and love for the sport, but not in money.
“It was sometimes a battle with him,” Hebert said.
It was sometimes a battle with life, too. To chase Olympic dreams of gold and glory is not easy, but Orozco would not give in. He loved the sport deeply, he believed deeply in himself, and he had a unique calm and humility during competition that those with experience recognized as a winner’s edge.
“It was a challenge,” his mom, Damaris Orozco, said. “The first couple of years, you start out a couple times a week, and the bill doesn’t sound that outrageous. But five kids, small house, not a lot of income ... it’s tough. But I taught my kids to barter. There’s ways to make ends meet. Do things right, be proud of what you accomplish, and it’ll work out.”
Her son received the message. He saw the struggle, yes, but he also took to heart the idea of working hard and finding a way to make his dreams fit into the reality of his life.
“It was tough,” Orozco said. “Gymnastics is not a forgiving sport in that aspect. You have to have some money to be traveling, competition fees, uniforms. ... It’s a lot, especially for my family. After I made the junior national team, the owner came up to my parents and said, ‘He’s doing really good for our gym.’
“So, he said, ‘I think we can work with this.’ He gave us a break on the finances, let me train there for free, and in return, I worked over the summer at summer camps and over weekends at birthday parties.” Orozco laughed. “And I kept tips.”
He also kept his focus, and as he improved his coaches at World Cup knew they had to let him go. It was time.
“Even before he was going to graduate, we had already planned and planted a seed in his mind that we’d love to keep him here," Herbert said. "But if he wanted to reach his goal of the Olympics, he’d have to focus on gymnastics only and go to the Olympic Training Center.”
That’s where Orozco is now, living at the center in Colorado Springs, Colo., working overtime with a passion and a hope that he will qualify for these Olympics and bring back a medal for his country — a talisman of success and a proper reward for all the hard work he and his parents have put in.
“It’s been ever since I was little, I can just see myself at the Olympics,” he said.
And it all started with a flyer sitting there, somewhere in New York City, waiting for a lifelong sanitation worker to pick it up, take it home and start a young man toward a destiny that could soon include an Olympic medal.