John Orozco

Mrs. Obama shines at USOC conference

DALLAS -- When she's on a pool deck, Natalie Coughlin has no nerves. Or if she does, she hides them well. After all, competing in two Olympics, in 11 events, she has won 11 medals, three gold. On stage here Monday, flanked by other Olympic athletes and hopefuls, it was Coughlin's privilege to introduce the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Wouldn't you know? Coughlin was not only nervous -- she was, as she acknowledged at the microphone, stumbling a bit over her lines, "so nervous right now."

It was fabulous. Natalie Coughlin, tough-as-nails Olympic medalist, "Dancing with the Stars" competitor, a regular person.

The First Lady, here to promote an initiative through her "Let's Move!" campaign, couldn't have been more gracious. "You have a lot of medals," she said with a smile. "No need to shake."

Mrs. Obama has a magnetism about her that is undeniable. She spoke from the stage about, among others, the gymnast John Orozco, who grew up in the Bronx, telling the story about how his parents used to drive him an hour or more out to gymnastics practice and then how he got a job at that same gym, giving his folks his first paycheck with instructions to apply it to the mortgage on the family home.

Before they had gone on stage, Orozco had met Mrs. Obama. "It was insane. Unreal," he said. "She gave me such a tight hug.

"Coming from where I came from, the Bronx. I used to play in the street. In the dirt. Now I'm meeting the First Lady!"

Among the athletes behind her on stage was the 400-meter sprinter LaShawn Merritt. Four years ago, he had been invited to the White House for a special dinner before the 2008 Games, where he got to meet President and Mrs. Bush. A few weeks later, he won gold in Beijing.

Then, though, Merritt tested positive for a male-enhancement product and served a 21-month doping suspension. After that, in the interests of harmonizing doping rules across the world, the USOC actively took up his case. He's now eligible to run in the U.S. Trials and, assuming he makes the 2012 team, in London.

LaShawn Merritt's redemption became that much more complete on Monday. He may or may not win gold again in London. But he was there on stage with the First Lady of the United States, head held high.

"It's been a road. My soul is light," he said afterwards. "To be there with the First Lady is amazing."

Mrs. Obama will lead the U.S. delegation to the 2012 Olympics. Any number of the athletes with whom she spoke Monday found it captivating just to be around her.

"Meeting the First Lady created extra buzz and extra motivation," said Nastia Liukin, the gold medal-winning gymnast from 2008 who is on the comeback trail for 2012. "It's go time from here on out."

"I just got my citizenship last year and today I met the First Lady," said badminton champion Tony Gunawan. "Now that's not normal!"

"Just another day at the office?" asked shooting star Kim Rhode. "No. Not at all. It's not every day that you get to meet the First Lady."

The trick, of course, is to translate that buzz into action. This is where things get far more problematic.

Mrs. Obama's intent is laudable. The idea, she said Monday, is to join with various national governing bodies to provide athletic programming to 1.7 million kids in 2012.

There's no doubt that something has to be done. American kids are fat.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese went from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Over the same time frame, the percentage of adolescents -- ages 12 to 19 -- categorized as obese jumped from 5 to 18 percent, according to the CDC.

The original idea, Mrs. Obama said, was to get 1 million young people involved. The NGBs stepped up and went beyond that, to 1.7 million.

USA Swimming, for instance, will enroll 530,000 new learn-to-swim kids in its "Make-a-Splash" program at more than 500 local pools.

As impressive as those numbers sound, the initiative Mrs. Obama announced Monday amounts only to the tip of the iceberg.

Here's the reality:

The federal inter-agency forum on child and family statistics,, reports there are 76.1 million children in the United States. Of those 76.1 million, 50.4 million are ages 6 to 17 -- essentially the target demographic for "Let's Move."

Doing the math: 1.7 million divided by 50.4 million equals 3.4 percent.

In plain English, that's the percentage of American kids this initiative would reach.

To be equally plain, Mrs. Obama, the USOC and the NGBs involved are to be congratulated for the effort. She, too, is right when she suggests that seeing Natalie Coughlin or John Orozco or whoever it might be this summer in London might well be the spark that sets a new generation of young people "to pursue whatever dreams they hold in their hearts."

But surely she knows, and everyone else in a position of authority does, too, that if we are going to be serious, really serious, about doing something genuinely meaningful about the obesity crisis confronting American kids, it's going to take an across-the-board effort that goes far beyond a well-intentioned initiative reaching  3.4 percent of our young people.

As Natalie Coughlin said, and this came out loud and clear when she said this, "America's youth are this country's greatest asset."

All you have is love

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A few days ago, they held the Olympic Trials in wrestling in Iowa City, Iowa. Afterwards, several of those who made it, along with those who did not, went back home -- home being the U.S. Olympic Training center here, in Colorado Springs. Talk about, well, awkward.

This, though, is why Sherry vonRiesen and Dokmai Nowicki are not just two of the most valuable players in the entire U.S. Olympic movement.

They are -- and it is not at all a stretch to say this -- two of the most beloved.

"I have the best job in the world," Sherry said. "For every athlete who makes [the team], 10 don't. The athletes come back and they want to celebrate -- but they're very sensitive to the athletes or teammates, or even their roommates, who don't."

On the wrestling team, "We have two athletes who share a room. One made it and one didn't.

"They want answers. You don't have answers."

All you have, she said, is love.

Sherry's formal title is "athlete liaison, program management division." Oh, brother. She and Dokmai are everybody's surrogate moms at the USOC Training Center dorm, which typically houses about 175 athletes.

No one calls Dokmai "Dokmai." Everyone calls her "Flower." Formally, she is the grill sous chef in the dining room attached to the dorm. If food truly is love, try Flower's pad thai. There's a reason people schedule meetings at the Training Center on days Flower is known to be making her pad thai.

The Thai steak with mango rice is also fantastic. As Flower said, gently, "People just love that."

Sherry, who is now 66, has been the dorm mom on site for almost 15 years. She is originally from Topeka, Kan. "Our goal," she said of her role at the Center, "is just to keep them laughing."

Flower, who is 56, has been in the United States since 1977. She grew up in Victorville, Calif., married an Air Force serviceman and moved with him to Colorado Springs in 1992. The next year, she got the job at the Training Center.

"They are going to have to carry us out," Sherry said.

She added, "Flower and I have been here so long that we have seen everyone come through here."

It's a ritual of Training Center life that gymnasts show up when they are perhaps nine or 10, maybe even younger, not to live full-time but for special camps. They're called "Future Stars" and it's often their first time away from home.

Who looks after them? Sherry and Flower.

"These little Future Stars in gymnastics are so cute," Flower said. "They have their little jackets. They are looking around. I go up to them and say, 'Good morning!' And, 'How are you?' And, 'Help yourself. Here is the grill. Have some vegetables.' I make sure there's no desserts or ice cream early in the morning.

"I also make sure that if it's someone's birthday at the camp that we know. I have little cupcakes for all the little guys' birthdays." (And the big guys, too -- like pentathlon champion Eli Bremer.)

"I love Flower," John Orozco, expected to be a bright star on the 2012 U.S. gymnastics team, said.

John, who has lived at the Training Center for the past two years, moving out from New York City, said, "I have known Flower since the first time I came here. I made the Future Stars team when I was nine. She cooked the best meals when I was nine. Every day when I was that little and I came and I saw Flower, I was like, 'OK, we are going to get the best food.'

"Now when I ask her to make some dishes, she is like, 'No, I can't. You're in training.' We come and she knows exactly what we want -- all the time.

"And Sherry -- she makes sure we are all taken care of and we are not doing anything bad. She is like a real mom to us. I'm 19 and there are guys here who are 30. And she's still like their mom."

The boxer Queen Underwood, also expected to shine at the London Games, said, "I like Sherry. She e-mails me and keeps me updated and stuff. I always tell her, 'Good morning!' And she gives me a big hug."

Queen, who is from Seattle, has been training since December in the Springs. She said, "Flower knows what I want. Four egg whites, scrambled. I don't want all that stuff to make me fat!"

Apolo Ohno, who lived and trained at the Center for years, had a fantastic relationship with Sherry and Flower. Now that he is an eight-time Olympic medalist, and off doing television and other projects, they miss him.

"People ask me the success of people we have worked with or become famous," Sherry said. "Apolo has courage enough to keep people around him who will be very honest," adding a moment later, "To me the success Apolo has had is that he would listen to what people said, and take it to heart."

"I do miss Apolo a lot," Flower said. "I haven't gotten to talk to him much after Vancouver," meaning the 2010 Winter Olympics. "He's busy!"

"Well, he will always send little messages," Sherry said, typically text messages, an Apolo specialty.

So does MIchael Phelps -- another of their favorites. When Michael is in town for what are typically three week-long altitude training sessions at the complex's pool, Flower knows that Michael likes his eggs scrambled with jalapeños and cheddar cheese.

"He is a low-maintenance guy," Flower said with a big smile, adding, "Michael always says, 'Thank you,' and, 'Please,' no matter how tired he is or how busy he is."

The reason everyone loves Flower and Sherry is easy to explain. They treat everyone at the Training Center like Apolo Ohno or Michael Phelps; to them, every single athlete and staffer is a winner.

Even the boss is a winner. Flower's condition for sitting for this article was that it had to include her praise for her boss, Terri Moreman, the USOC's associate director of food and nutrition services. Flower said, "My boss is so supportive."

"We are blessed to work with [Olympic] athletes," Sherry said.

It's really the other way around.

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."