John Orozco, 19, grew up in the blue-collar Bronx neighborhood of Harding Park—a place, like so many inner-city enclaves, where young jocks are expected to color within the holy athletic trinity of basketball, football and baseball.
Gymnastics wasn't even on Orozco's periphery until grade school, when his father, then working for the city sanitation department in Manhattan, spotted a flyer for a free tryout.
Today, Orozco is the second-best all-arounder in America and the youngest member of perhaps the most talented U.S. men's team ever. Today, he's talking about moving his parents from their mealy-roofed place in the Bronx to a house in the suburbs. Today is a damn good day for the kid who ditched sporting acceptance in favor of singlets, cartwheels and a cockeyed Olympic dream.
As the inspirational tumbler heads to London, he and other U.S. Olympians will be fielding messages of support and encouragement from fans via the Hilton HHonors "Support the Dream Program." To send John a message, visit the initiative's website here.
And to learn a little more about one of this summer's unlikeliest U.S. Olympians, read B/R's interview with Orozco below.
1.) Coming from the Bronx, you’ve said it wasn’t always easy being the kid who did gymnastics. Was there ever a moment where you just wanted to quit the sport?
There were a few times that I wanted to, but I knew that those moments where I felt like quitting didn’t mean I should.
My overall goals and my overall dreams weren’t going to let me quit.
What were those internal conversations like when you were thinking about quitting?
When I was thinking about it, it was usually because I thought there was a lot of pressure on me coming from myself—just because I knew that my family was kind of struggling financially and that making the Olympic team would mean our lives would change for the better.
Once you make the Olympic team and go that far in the sport it can open up a lot of doors and opportunities—and I knew that. And that’s what I wanted for me and my family.
So whenever I was working at the gym and something wasn’t coming together, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me and a lot of expectations to do well in the sport and make my dreams come true—not only for myself, but for my family.
I put that pressure on myself when I was younger and sometimes it felt like too much.
2.) When you talk about using gymnastics to make a better life for you and your family, what’s your vision? What does a better life look like?
I mean it can’t get any better than it is right now. [Laughs] I feel like, in a way, I’ve sort of achieved that for myself.
But for my family, I want to get the money together and move them out of the Bronx and pay off the house we’re living in.
We’re paying way too much for it and the roof is leaking and there [are] a lot of problems with the house that need to be fixed. And just the area of the Bronx that we live in is…it’s just getting a little tiring to live there.
The whole culture of living in the Bronx is really tiring some times. I know they would like to move and that’s what I want to do for them.
3.) Who came up with your nickname, Silent Ninja?
The 2011 World Championship team gave me that name because I was so focused in practice and I didn’t talk a lot. They said that my gymnastics when I compete is really fluid. It’s not like I have a big “wow” factor on any event, but [it's] that my skills are really nice. So when I do compete, I kind of come out of nowhere and it [shows] in the standings. That’s where the “Silent Ninja” comes in.
But how come you’re the Silent Ninja? Aren’t all ninjas silent? Is there such thing as a loud ninja?
I guess not. That would be kind of a contradiction to the whole ninja [concept].
You should call them out on that.
[Laughs] No. I wouldn’t do that. It’s just a term of endearment. I actually like having a nickname. I never had a nickname growing up, so I think it’s really cool.
4.) Some kid, maybe a kid in the Bronx, is going to see you on TV this summer. What do you want that kid to take away from watching you compete?
I want them to know that all my life people have not really supported me—except for my family and a few select people. I just want them to know that a lot of people gave me a lot of crap. [Laughs] And I didn’t let that stop me. I kept going. I kept pushing. I was doing something I love. And when you do something you love, it feels great.
As long as you’re doing something you love, it shouldn’t matter if it makes anyone else happy.
If you do that, everything should be fine.
5.) You talked before about the pressure. Are there moments where you feel like it’s moving too fast and you’re not 19 anymore?
Every once in a while it’s like that. But I have a couple of outlets. I can go to the mall. I can go to the movies with some friends and feel like a teenager sometimes…But I knew this was going to happen. It’s not like I’m complaining.