Damaris Orozco

From the Bronx to Gymnastics' Big Stage

You want to know why Americans love the Olympic dream? It's young people like John Orozco.

John is a world-class gymnast from the Bronx. He finished third in the all-around in the 2011 U.S. national championships, behind Danell Leyva and U.S. men's team mainstay Jon Horton.

As if that alone weren't enough -- a gymnast from the Bronx, for real -- John's dad, William, worked for New York City's Department of Sanitation for 24 years; William retired because he suffered a stroke.

John's mom, Damaris, used to drive John 30 miles to a gym in Chappaqua, N.Y., about an hour each way, and it was an hour only if traffic was good. She has herself faced multiple health issues.

When you watch John compete this week at the gymnastics world championships in Tokyo, think about all it took about for him just to get there -- as well as all he proudly stands for and all he hopes yet to achieve.

"I'm on the podium, winning a medal," listening to The Star-Spangled Banner. "That's the moment I want to be in. That's the moment I see myself in -- I try to see myself in, the moment I think about every day.

"It's like I get chills and butterflies in my stomach when I think about it," John said. "It's almost like -- I don't know. It's almost embarrassing. I'm almost on the verge of tears. I guess I'm a softie."

In the lead-up to London and 2012, John is based now at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But New York City is definitely still home.

Assuming John makes the 2012 U.S. team, the buzz around him figures to be big. Like way big. He is, after all, from the Media Capital of The World. How it is that the major outlets in New York -- with the exception of the Daily News -- haven't yet discovered John is something of a mystery.

Oh, but they will.

Dominic Minicucci, Jr., from Staten Island, was the last guy from the city of New York to be on the U.S. men's Olympic teams. He was on the 1988 and 1992 teams.

The Bronx?

"It was hard," John said, "because, you know, I'd get flak from all the other guys," the ones in high school who were playing other sports, basketball especially. "What is that you are doing? Gymnastics? You're putting all those tight clothes on? You're doing flips?

"I'd say, 'You guys just don't get it.' "

Again: The Bronx. Gymnastics. High school.

If that's not the sort of thing that forges mental toughness, what does?

One day last week, between sessions at the Colorado Springs center, John was wearing a shirt that read, "Pain is Love."

It was not, assuredly, a statement of self-pity.

It was a statement of toughness. And realness.

"I didn't have that much time for friends," John said, thinking back to high school. He finished about a year ago. He's still just 18, turning 19 in December.

Then again, "I figured I'd have all the time in the world after the Olympics to make friends."

He said, "My parents helped me out with that, too. They told me anything you want to do is fine. "If you want to do this," meaning gymnastics, "keep going. If you don't, let us know. Don't let anyone else influence you because of how you might fit in."

John said a moment or two later, "My family is everything to me. They're the ones who have always been there. They're the ones who are always going to be there."

John is the youngest of five. He has three brothers. "They act like, 'Oh, gymnastics -- oh, ha-ha-ha.' But when I'm not around, they're like, 'Oh, my brother -- he's going to the world championships!"

Where the spotlight finds John and, assuming he stays healthy, stays on him to and through London.

Ready for that spotlight? "I hope so," he said.

He thought for another moment, then smiled and said, an affirmation, "I think so."