U.S. Olympic gymnast John Orozco is in his first Olympics, but he has a lifetime of stories to tell.
From his childhood growing up in the Bronx to devastating injuries and nearly losing his father, Orozco has had his fair share of challenges, beyond just trying to negotiate the pommel horse without falling off.
So as he looks to make his mark in the international spotlight, here are 10 things you should know about this gymnast from the the Empire state.
Orozco’s most popular nickname on the national stage is Secret Ninja—or “Sninja,” as some of his teammates call him.
But he seems to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis of late.
During last year’s World Championships held in Tokyo, this ninja earned another Japanese nickname. They called him Kung Fu Panda, for his eating habits.
Orozco explained in an interview with Gymnastike.org that he was constantly hungry during the meet because of its late start time, so he brought a few snacks with him around the competition.
“I’ve been sneaking in food in my gym bag because I get hungry… So I packed some food and I’m like eating before the competition—right on the floor—and they’re like, ‘What are you doing? You’re like Kung Fu Panda, you can’t stop eating.’”
His food of choice? Croissants and a loaf of bread. Wonder Bread better be paying attention.
Gym Class Heroes
Synchronized with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s “Raise Our Flag” campaign, Gym Class Heroes released a new single title “The Fighter.”
What does “The Fighter” have to do with a Top 10 list for an aspiring Olympic gymnast?
The video opens with none other than Orozco. And in keeping with the title, the video chronicles his journey from the Bronx to him being within reach of his childhood dreams.
There are even home videos of a very young Orozco in some of his first meets.
It’s a fitting video for someone who’s built himself up so much from so little, even if some “critics” didn’t quite get the message.
Outside of his music video debut with Gym Class Heroes, Orozco has dabbled in other forms of entertainment on the rare occasions he can get away from the gym.
After some friendly jibes from teammates Jordyn Wiber, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney for not singing for them in Japan, he released this video on YouTube. He also has a cover of Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper.”
When he’s not working towards being the next Chris Brown (his favorite artist), he’s also appearing on national television.
On three occasions, Orozco’s been an extra on Law and Order.
If he keeps this up he may one day get that meeting with Brown he wishes to have.
And ladies: he loves “Glee.”
Right around the time Orozco was getting into gymnastics, he was also earning recognition in another sport.
As just a child, the Bronx native became a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
Things changed on that first trip to his new gymnastics gym—which, by the way, he was too young to join originally. Orozco’s dad was able to convince the coach to let his son join at seven years old, after he got a chance to see the future Olympic hopeful run around the gym doing cartwheels.
The age requirement was originally set for eight.
Just imagine if Orozco never got into gymnastics. Could he have found his way into competitive Tae Kwon Do?
Orozco hails from the Bronx, a place not exactly famous for being a gymnastics hotbed.
At eight years old, he was introduced to the sport after his dad—a former sanitation supervisor—found a flier for a free tryout while at work.
It was love at first cartwheel.
New York is Yankees territory. It’s Giants and Jets territory. It’s Knicks territory. It’s Mets territory. It is not gymnastics territory.
Orozco’s goal is to show kids everywhere, especially from his neighborhood, that there are other avenues in sports to participate in.
While NFL stars like Chris Johnson may rule the gridiron for the money, Orozco wants to rule the gym for the love of the sport.
The Orozcos don’t come from money.
After Orozco earned a spot for lessons at World Cup Gymnastics in Chappaqua, N.Y., his parents drove him 30 miles every day to practice. In a family with five kids (he’s the youngest) it goes without saying that it didn’t exactly help their money problems.
So one day as a young teenager, Orozco handed his dad a 300-dollar check while they were driving home from the gym. He told his parents to use it for the mortgage, after he had earned the money working as an instructor at the gym.
His parents were blown away. They didn’t want him to know about their financial struggles, even though it was impossible to keep secret. They still shed tears reliving that moment.
Now that he has gone pro, he hopes to be able to use gymnastics as a way to help his family live a better life. It’s one of the things that drives him through every routine, every competition, every fall, every moment.
As if trying to make it to London isn’t enough pressure…
While competing on the junior circuit of the 2007 Visa Championships, life struck Orozco another blow.
The first day was yet another step up the ladder for him, as he won the first day of the junior competition.
Then he got a call that nearly changed his life.
His father, William, had suffered a stroke. Everyone thought he wouldn’t return in time to see his dad alive. Orozco wanted to leave San Jose, CA, but his mom refused. His dad would have wanted him to stay.
Orozco would keep his composure and ended up taking first in the all-around, and medaling in all but the pommel horse.
Five years later, William is still alive, having made a nearly full recovery.
As if life couldn’t grant him an easy time, Orozco’s life struggles became personal pain.
After years of financial stress and dealing with the near loss of his dad, Orozco looked to be on the upswing heading into the 2010 Visa Championships.
But on his vault attempt, things didn’t quite go as planned. While his landing wasn’t the sharpest he’s ever had, it by no means looked to be devastating. Nine times out of 10 a gymnast walks away unharmed from such a misstep.
But Orozco was that one time—tearing over 90 percent of his right Achilles tendon. The injury sidelined him completely from the gym for several months, but it took nearly a year until he could do anything of significance in a gymnastics setting on his ankle.
In the meantime, it allowed him to work on some of his self-acknowledged weaknesses, such as the pommel horse. It may have been a blessing in disguise, because he is now arguably the best on the apparatus of those competing for a trip to London.
Orozco’s ascent to the top of the gymnastics food chain has been relatively quiet, fitting for “Sninja.”
But he’s by no means a late bloomer in the sport. From 2007 to 2009, the teen won the all-around three consecutive times in the Visa Championships in the junior division. No other athlete vying for a spot on the Team USA roster can say the same.
In those three competitions, Orozco didn’t just win—he dominated. He claimed 11 individual event golds, two silvers, and a bronze. That’s 14 medals out of a possible 18 events.
Unfortunately, when he entered the senior circuit in 2010, he wasn’t able to immediately prove himself on the larger stage, blowing out his Achilles on the vault. It’s taken some time for him to recover (his floor routine is still not as strong as it once was), and some still question if he’s 100 percent.
But if his track record in juniors and his recent success after bouncing back from injury are any indication, he has the potential to dominate the U.S. and international competitions for years.
All of Orozco’s journey culminated (at least thus far) in his stunning upset of Danell Leyva in the 2012 Visa Championships all-around.
Orozco trailed for much of the competition, not quite sticking every routine as well as he would have hoped. But he was able to slowly chip away at the deficit, leaving him with a tiny window of opportunity in the final event.
The championships finished on the floor, where Orozco is still building back up after his Achilles tear. He performed a very impressive routine, and as you can hear, the sentiment was that he didn’t do well enough to complete a remarkable comeback.
At one point in the competition, he trailed Leyva by more than two points.
But when the scores came in, nobody in the building—especially Orozco—could believe that he pulled off a 15.5 on the floor, enough for a .05-point victory.
The victory earned him a spot on the qualifiers, although all he needed was a bronze to earn the opportunity.
Never hurts to go for the gold, I guess.