By John Powers
The second time that he tore his Achilles tendon, John Orozco found himself searching for a cosmic answer. He had lost his mother in February of last year and in June, he was out of commission again. “I was, like, wow, where is my life headed right now?,” he recalled. “I was in a pretty dark place for a while.”
His ‘why, God, why?’ period lasted for a few weeks until Orozco concluded that he had only two choices: he could call it a career or he could continue. “I worked way too hard to let that stop me, especially knowing that I got through it before,” he said. “There are times when I wanted to (quit) but I said I’d never let myself do that. Way too many years in the gym, coming to these competitions. I cannot let that go to waste. So I had to get back, had to give it one more shot.”
Orozco’s bid for a return ticket to the Olympics continued this week as he put on a consistent display – hitting nine of nine routines for three medals – at the Olympic Test Event in Rio de Janeiro. In addition to his success this week, his international season so far this year produced encouraging results — the all-around gold medal as senior stalwart of his junior group at the Elite Team Cup in March and fourth place in the all-around at last week’s Pacific Rim Championships presented by Hershey’s.
His plan has been to be slow, steady and sensible on the comeback route, understanding that what matters is how he performs at the P&G Championships and Olympic Trials in June. “I can’t go in the gym and knock out numbers like crazy,” he said. “I have to go in and say: This is my plan, this is what I have to do, do it and get out. Because my body just can’t take it any more. I’m 23 years old and my life is still kind of beginning but in gymnastics, it’s getting up there so I’m trying to train smarter and not harder. My Achilles is pinching a little bit on floor today? I have to stop.”
Last summer Orozco would have turned cartwheels if he’d known that he’d be back on the floor at all by wintertime. “When they told me it was going to be about a year I said, no-no-no-no-no, that’s not the right answer,” he said.
The right answer meant an accelerated rehab, getting himself back in form in half of the expected time. First, though, Orozco had to deal with his emotions. “I took about two or three weeks to be sad for myself,” he said. “Then it was, okay, I’ve done my little pity party, let’s get to it. Get back on track. I’ve got an Olympic trials to prepare for.”
The preparation process has been agonizingly and annoyingly tedious. “The most terrible part of it was not being able to walk,” Orozco said. “I went out and got a knee scooter. I said, I am going out to get my groceries, I am not sitting here. People were staring at me because I would literally hop out of my car and get out my wheeler. That was the hardest part for me.”
As the weeks passed, Orozco could hear the clock ticking on Brazil time. Nearly all of his London teammates were continuing on to Rio, where they hoped to deal with unfinished business, as did he. After winning the national title in 2012 Orozco went to the Games hoping for an all-around medal but came home empty-handed.
“Everyone wants to throw back in my face, oh, you messed up at the last Olympics, what are you going to do now?,” he said. “It’s like, yeah, it happened. And it’s unfortunate because I did have a lot of potential to medal and the team had a tremendous amount of potential to medal.”
Getting a second chance will be more challenging than it was four years ago, and Orozco accepts that. “Emotionally and mentally, I’m still mending myself,” he said earlier in the season. “Every competition I go to it’s another step.”
The Test Event literally has taken Orozco to the place where he wants to be in August – and he looked right at home. His last trip to the Games was more direct and less daunting, but Orozco is grateful that he’s en route at all. “I have a lot of lessons that I’ve encountered and that’s what helping me get through this,” he said. “I have my ups and downs but ultimately I have a pretty decent life and I shouldn’t let little things get me down.”