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By Jo-Ann Barnas
PITTSBURGH – John Orozco had been in this position many times before – one event to go, protecting a lead, the pressure on.
He shuffled his feet and mounted the pommel horse, content to let strength and muscle memory to take over on Friday night in the senior men’s competition at the P&G Gymnastics Championships.
And that’s what happened.
“The first couple of circles, I told myself, ‘Relax, relax – you know what you need to do; you know what you need to do,’” the 2012 U.S. Olympian said.
When his routine was over, the smile on his face only brightened when he saw his score – 14.50. The score ensured that Orozco – the 2012 U.S. champion – would maintain the lead he gained after the fourth rotation. And it also gave him this: A first-place total of 90.750 points into Sunday night’s final day at Consol Energy Center.
“I felt like I was myself out there,” said Orozco, who took fourth in the all-around last year while wearing a knee brace after tearing an ACL and meniscus in October 2012. “I wasn’t keeping track of my placement. I was just focusing on my performance, just being myself. I felt like I was myself as well.”
It was a night of good feelings for other gymnasts, like Jacob Dalton, who took second after posting a huge score on floor exercise (15.70) and ending the night with 90.250 points.
“My goal on Sunday is to go out and do the same thing,” he said.
And then there was 2011 U.S. champ Danell Leyva – the only U.S. male gymnast to win a medal at the London Olympics (all-around bronze). His result was boosted by big scores on high bar (15.75) and parallel bars (15.45) and stands in third with 88.90 points.
Leyva, who finished seventh in the all-around at the 2013 P&G Gymnastics Championships, said he senses that he is moving past his shoulder injury – and a dose of fleeting confidence – that has affected him the last couple of years.
"I trust myself more,” Leyva said. “I wasn’t out there thinking, ‘Oh, man, this has to happen.’”
It wasn’t the best of nights for defending U.S. champion Sam Mikulak.
He had a couple of costly wobbles on one of his strongest events – parallel bars – his first event. His score of 13.550 left him in 24the place heading into the second rotation.
But Mikulak, who placed sixth in the all-around in his first world championships last year, said he didn’t consider himself being on the outside looking in – even after he fell on a tumbling pass on floor exercise.
Far from it.
The three-time NCAA champion from Michigan rallied and improved to fourth place with 88.40 points, a total that included the top score on pommel horse (15.150).
Mikulak said he’s looking on the bright side: He’s just 2.350 points out of first place.
“I’ve been behind, I’ve been ahead – nothing new that I haven’t come back before from in gymnastics,” he said. “When I do make mistakes it’s a shocker because I feel I’m in great shape, so these little things are a little uncharacteristic. But things happen. You have to find the mistakes and fix them.
“I’m excited to get out there and redeem myself.”
So, too, is Donnell Whittenburg, who led after the first three rotations — including posting the best score on high sky-high vault (15.650). But the Baltimore, Md., gymnast – who won the all-around in the national qualifier in July in Colorado Springs, Colo. – couldn’t maintain his grip on the lead. He finished with 87.90 points, good for seventh.
“I’m happy, excited to get back at it,” he said. “Being here is a great experience, to be able to compete on the same floor as these guys.”
Whittenburg was speaking during the post-meet press conference, and he was sitting just a few stools down from two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton.
When Horton raised his hand before mounting the parallel bars, his first event, it marked the first time he had competed since the 2012 London Olympics. The two years have been rough for the gymnast: two shoulder surgeries.
But Horton, 28, is determined to try to make his third U.S. Olympic team in 2016 in Rio. The two-time 2008 Olympic medalist is currently in 12th place with 86.30 points.
“I can’t be upset or mad at anything I did today,” Horton said. “Two years off and I didn’t fall. I’m happy.”