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John Orozco will get his chance at redemption at the biggest stage in the world after securing his spot on this year’s Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro.
The 23-year-old son of Puerto Rican parents will be heading to his second Olympics as a specialist this time around, focusing on high bar, parallel bars and maybe pommel horse — his greatest disappointment in London in 2012.
“I just can’t believe it,” he told NBC after earning his spot. “I can’t put it into words… The past year and a half that I’ve had and all the people that doubted me, I finally found the strength within myself to just go out there and do it.”
Leading up to the Olympic trials over the weekend in St. Louis, Orozco overcame great personal struggles, including re-tearing his Achilles heel in June of last year and losing his mother Damaris in February of last year, to make it to the podium again. Gymnastics experts said it was his impressive high bar routine that helped him make it into the top five and land a spot once again on Team USA.
"I'm really proud of everyone that's help me get to this point, especially my mom," he told NBC. "My mom was there the whole time and I know she's looking down on me and she's so proud. And if you can hear me, mom, I love you."
Orozco is joined on the team by Chris Brooks, Alex Naddour, Sam Mikulak and Jake Daulton. Each have their own individual strengths.
“The majority of us are veterans,” Orozco told the Associated Press. “The pressure was there to help push us and that's a beautiful thing to see."
And perhaps most importantly for a program that's in some ways been eclipsed on the international stage by upstart Great Britain behind longtime powers China and Japan, each seized their spot by not shying away from the moment.
"There was no, hardly any hiccups along the way," said national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. "It was great to see."
While Mikulak entered the final day assured of a second Olympic berth, he was the only lock. Behind him was a jumble of a 6-8 contenders vying for one of the remaining four positions. Mazeika admitted in some ways the selection committee was "splitting hairs" while trying to piece together a group that could thrive in the three-up, three-count format during Olympic team finals.
Ultimately they let the math do the talking. And when each committee member jotted down their final ballot during a brief 12-minute meeting at the end of the competition, they were identical.
"In reality, when the scenarios came in and the same team was on all of them, it was relatively easy at that point," Mazeika said. "Emotional too. Brooks has spent the better part of a decade on the fringe, stung by injuries or inconsistency. Yet he went 24 for 24 through four rounds of qualifying, including a muscular save on parallel bars Saturday night when he nearly over-rotated his way to the mat. Nearly.
In his head during those frantic five seconds as he fought to hold on, Brooks' mind was racing.
"'There's no way I'm coming off these bars,'" Brooks said. "'You're going to have to break my arms to get me off these bars."
There was no need. He recovered and put up a 15.175, and his four-round total on parallel bars was tops in the field. When Brooks drilled his high bar set a few minutes later, he let out a guttural scream as the weight of unmet expectations seemed to vanish in front of him following what he called "the best routine of my life."
Brooks is hardly the only American who took a winding path to Rio. Orozco was one of the team's bright young stars in 2012. Yet London was a nightmare. He flew off pommel horse during the team and all-around finals and the last four years has been a mix of injury and personal setbacks. He tore ligaments in his knee in 2012 and his Achilles for a second time last summer just months following the passing of his mother.
Though the committee combined the scores of nationals earlier this month and trials to try and get a big-picture view, the truth is the last month just marked the final steps in a lengthy process of elimination.
The U.S. will head to Rio at full strength, and with something resembling momentum. Outside of Mikulak's typical early meet flub — he slipped off high bar during the first rotation — glaring mistakes were few and far between.
Dalton, who maintained he could have competed in worlds despite a shoulder injury but instead was left off and underwent surgery instead, overcome a so-so performance in nationals. Naddour, who became a father earlier this year, has long been the best American on pommel horse but has added solid skills elsewhere in hopes of making him more attractive to the committee. Naddour's improvement on vault probably helped open the door for Brooks.
"I flashbacks of being an 8-year-old kid in the gym, all my coaches along the way, all my friends and family that sacrificed for me," Brooks said. "It's all now worth it."
As for the alternates – meaning if one of the top five gets injured – the national team selection committee chose Danell Leyva, Donnell Whittenburg, and Akash Modi.
Leyva, a 24-year-old Cuban-American who won the third American in a century to win an individual all-around medal when he surged to bronze in London, struggled during the opening two rounds of qualifying in Hartford earlier this month.
Though he improved greatly at trials – his performance on vault Saturday night drew the customary frantic fit of joy by his stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez – it wasn’t enough to sway the selection committee.
On the surface it appears as if Leyva took a step back, a notion that obscures the tangible proof that the guys who made the team ahead of Leyva took a step forward, a clear sign the program is heading in the right direction.
"I feel like it kind of speaks for itself about the depth that U.S. gymnastics has," Leyva said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.