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Bronx native John Orozco an unlikely gymnastics star

By Jason Carroll and Vivienne Foley, CNN
July 26, 2012 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
  • Gymnastics wasn't a popular pursuit for a kid from the Bronx
  • Classmates teased John Orozco for "leaping around in ladies' tights"
  • At 10, he told his parents he wanted to be in the 2012 Olympics
  • Orozco may be the best hope for a U.S. gold medal in gymnastics

New York (CNN) -- John Orozco won his first medal in gymnastics when he was 9. But he didn't hold onto that medal for long, giving it to another boy in the competition who was in tears after being teased for a bad performance.

"He walked over to the kid that they were making fun of, and he said, 'Here you go,' and he took his medal off and put it around the kid and said, 'One day you'll be better than I am. Don't cry,' " says his mother, Damaris Orozco, who still gets choked up recalling that gesture.

"That's John. That's what he does. It's who he is."

That same Puerto Rican boy from the Bronx is now 19 and has made it all the way to the London Olympics. His heart is set on winning a gold medal -- this one for his country. He may be the best hope for a U.S. gold medal in gymnastics in 2012.

Damaris Orozco says that she and her husband, William, are thrilled but not surprised their son made the Olympic team. "When that little boy told us when he was 10 years old, 'I want to go to 2012,' we believed him."

Orozco on tough times in the Bronx

John Orozco started down the path to the Olympics when he was 7. His father, who was a sanitation worker, saw a flier offering free gymnastics classes and signed him up. Orozco has never looked back.

"The minute I stepped foot in the gym I just loved it. I knew it was what I wanted to do for a long time," Orozco says.

His Olympic dream was inspired by the Hamm brothers at the 2004 Olympics.

By the time he was 14, he was fully committed to getting to the Games. "I said I really want to have that one day -- to put the gold medal around my neck, waving to the crowd, knowing that all my hard work has paid off and my dream has come true," he said.

Gymnastics wasn't a popular pursuit for a kid from the Bronx, and he hasn't forgotten the ridicule from schoolmates teasing him for "leaping around in ladies' tights."

"The minute I stepped foot in the gym I just loved it," says John Orozco, who trained five or six days a week growing up.

"They just didn't understand everything that went into gymnastics. All the work, all the hours, all the blood, sweat and tears." Besides, he jokes, "Look at me. I'm 5-foot-5, 5-foot-4. Can you imagine me being a basketball player?"

To get the level of coaching her son required, his mother drove him to and from a gym in Chappaqua, New York, an hour away, often twice a day. By 9, he was training four hours daily five and often six days a week.

"When he needed it, we'd give him a day off, but he usually didn't want to take a day off," his former coach Carl Schrade says.

Schrade often trained Orozco for free since there wasn't money to pay for coaching. "With a gymnast like that, you don't think twice about it," Schrade says.

Schrade started having big dreams for Orozco by the time the boy was 10. It's rare to find the perfect balance of strength and grace in a boy, Schrade says, but on top of all that, you need discipline and drive, and he says Orozco had both.

Orozco celebrates after being named to the U.S. Olympics gymnastic team in San Jose, California.
Orozco celebrates after being named to the U.S. Olympics gymnastic team in San Jose, California.

"People ask me if he's a once in a lifetime gymnast, and I joke around and say he's a once in a hundred lifetimes gymnast," Schrade says.

Vitaly Marinitch, his coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado where he has been training for more than a year, says Orozco's combination of talent, "cat-like" moves and hard work make him a contender for a medal in London.

"We're aiming for gold. We'll see what happens," Marinitch says.

Orozco says he's feeling no pressure as he faces the biggest athletic stage of his life.

"I kind of feel like there's more pressure at the Olympic trials to make the team, and now it's kind of like, it's a sigh of relief. Now I can just go and do my gymnastics and have fun," he says.

To his mother, he's already won the gold.

"The person that he is, the heart that he has, the dreams that he has, he's a gold winner already so anything on top of that is just gravy," she says.

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