LONDON — The Silent Ninja, as his teammates call him, found himself fighting back tears on Monday after his afternoon was coming unglued. He had broken his routine on the pommel horse and found himself sitting atop the apparatus as though he was waiting for a crosstown bus. Then he splattered his vault landing. Not that John Orozco hadn’t had a few pratfalls before, but this time the whole world was watching.
“Things didn’t go as planned today,” conceded Orozco after he and his US gymnastics teammates left the floor emptyhanded after hoping for a third straight Olympic medal. “I don’t know exactly what happened.”
Orozco had competed alongside the same guys against the same people at last year’s world meet in Tokyo, where the US missed a silver medal by just 100th of a point behind the Japanese. But this was Olympus, the place that the 19-year-old Orozco had fantasized about ever since first he chalked up as an 8-year-old. But if he had a rough outing the first time that medals were on the line, he’ll get another chance in Wednesday’s all-around, where he and Danell Leyva will go up against the Japanese, Russians, and Germans.
That’s an opportunity that none of the Chinese will have, since nobody from the planet’s most dominant gymnastics country performed well enough in qualifying to make the grade. Orozco finished fourth, which puts him in medal contention if he can replicate what he did Saturday. Whether he makes the podium or not, Orozco may have made the most unlikely journey just to get here.
He’s the son of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in the Bronx and he ended up in the gym after his father, who works for the sanitation department, noticed a flyer for free lessons pasted to a lamppost. A decade later, Orozco had a global medal around his neck. “I hope I can bring a lot of pride to the Puerto Rican community, especially coming out from the Bronx,” he said. “I’m just glad this is happening now and I can show them that this can be achieved, this level of glory.”
Unless they can dunk a basketball, male gymnasts are not particularly admired in his neighborhood. “When I first started I was getting a bit of slack,” Orozco said, “but I didn’t care what other kids thought because I was always very different in what I wanted to do — and I knew what I wanted to do from a young age.” Orozco wanted gymnastics badly enough that he and his mother commuted back and forth from Long Island. “I wanted to go to the Olympics,” he said. “That was my ultimate dream.”
By the time he was a teenager he was a rising star, winning three straight US junior titles. And when he tore an Achilles’ tendon vaulting at the 2010 national championships, it merely reinforced his resolve. “I’m actually glad it happened because it gave me time to work on other events that I wasn’t so strong on,” he said. “In a way it was a good thing because now I’m a better all-arounder because of it.”
Orozco was a multi-tasker at last year’s world meet, going up on four of the six events and finishing fifth in the all-around. This year, he dethroned Leyva at the nationals. “I was very excited and very happy and also very surprised because I didn’t think I would come out as the US champion but I did,” he said. “It was very shocking. If you see any pictures online you see my face after I saw the scoreboard.”
Though Leyva returned the favor at the Olympic trials, Orozco accomplished what he came for, finishing second to lock up an automatic berth on the five-man team. “For so long I’ve been dreaming about this every night before I go to bed,” he said when he made the squad. “I can’t believe I actually did it. There’s so much doubt in your heart and in your mind when you’re going out there because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Most of the time the Silent Ninja ends up where he needs to be. “Jon Horton and Chris Brooks gave me that nickname because usually in practice I’m really serious and I don’t talk a lot and I’m really focused,” he said. “Sometimes my gymnastics can seem very subtle. It comes out of nowhere. That’s what they say.” When Orozco is on his game, he’s lethal and relentless.
So after his botched horse and vault routines, Orozco pulled it together and turned in superb efforts on parallel bars and high bar. “John kind of did what John does,” said US assistant coach Thomas Meadows. “He’s going to attack everything. That’s John.”
Orozco could have had a scholarship to Oklahoma or Michigan or Stanford or any of the few remaining college gymnastics programs. Instead, he opted to move to Colorado Springs and live at the Olympic Training Center, where he could take the express lane to the Games.
“That was the best decision for me,” he said. “Especially after my injury I needed as much time as I could have to recover and train for my dream. I can’t go to the Olympics when I’m 30 but college will be there.”
Now Orozco is where his childhood dream led him. He could have taken the easy route by competing for Puerto Rico, but he chose the more difficult and rewarding road. “I’m proud to be an American,” he says, “and I’m proud to be representing Team USA.”
His is a most unusual Bronx Tale, which usually involves a ballpark, a boxing ring, or a basketball court. Orozco chose the one with a high bar. “It’s fun flying in the air,” he has discovered. If he has the night he has had before on Wednesday, Orozco could find himself looking up at a star-spangled banner hoisted in his honor. If he has the night of his life, it could come with an anthem.
“I think it’s great that I can come in here and be proud of where I’m from with the background that I’ve had,” the Silent Ninja says. “I can show the younger kids that a boy in my situation when I was growing up can overcome anything you put your mind to. You can achieve any dream that you want to and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it and you shouldn’t let anyone else tell you any different.”