Orozco comes out on top at US Championships
ST. LOUIS – There came a time after the applause – after the hugs from competitors and the shock of winning the Visa Championships became controlled joy – when John Orozco began to consider how strong the U.S. men's gymnastics team could be in London.
It was shortly after the Bronx native clinched a comeback victory Saturday that caused his mother, Damaris, to blow kisses toward him from her seat at Chaifetz Arena. He earned a 15.50 on floor exercise in the final rotation to post a combined score of 184.85 and edge defending national champion Danell Leyva (184.80).
Throughout two sessions here, Orozco had witnessed deep talent among the 15 members named to the national team who will compete at the Olympic trials June 28 and 30 in San Jose, Calif. By the time he addressed his triumph in a crowded corridor, the first of a two-part process to determine the five-member Olympic team was complete. The Americans' potential intrigued him.
"We have so much talent on this team individually," said Orozco, who was a third-place finisher at the 2011 national championships. "When we all bring it together, I think it's going to be one big showdown in London. I cannot wait."
The anticipation was shared among many in St. Louis who could represent the United States in London. In addition to Orozco and Leyva, defending NCAA high-bar champion Sam Mikulak (182.85), 2008 Olympics team member Jonathan Horton (181.70), 2010 Visa Championships high-bar winner Chris Brooks (179.00) and 2011 Visa Championships floor and vault winner Jacob Dalton (179.00) were named to the national team and figure to be strong contenders to earn an Olympics bid. Other notables who will appear in San Jose include 2011 Pan American Games high-bar gold medalist Paul Ruggeri (175.55) and 2011 World Championships team members Steven Legendre (173.90) and Alex Naddour (171.75).
The depth is a convenient problem for national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika to have. The London Games will be chance for the Americans to continue momentum from a surprise third-place finish in Beijing – a feat made more impressive when considering it was achieved without twin brothers Paul (right hand) and Morgan Hamm (left ankle) because of injuries.
Powerhouses such as China (gold medal in Beijing) and Japan (silver) are predicted to be threats again, but U.S. men's gymnastics continues to work toward earning the prestige of its women's counterpart. Mazeika, for one, sees a positive chemistry starting to form.
"They work hard and stay humble in the process and have a lot of gratitude," he told FOXSports.com about the current national team. "It's a great group of athletes and coaches. They have a really strong spirit about them. They know the goal is to go over there and win, but they realize it's important to stay (grounded) and be thankful for what they do and work hard toward their goal.
"It's such an amazing opportunity they have to get to do the sport they love at the highest possible level. It's an incredible opportunity, and (they) must not to forget that. You get a chance to do this. Don't take that for granted."
Orozco, 19, and Leyva, 20, will be two top favorites who figure to make the most of their chance and advance to London. Both are emerging stars, full of youth and promise, who can serve as centerpieces for the U.S. men's gymnastics program.
Leyva, a Cuba native who defected to Miami with his family, was the all-around leader here after the first session Thursday with a score of 91.85. He also led for most of Saturday's competition, holding a .90 advantage over Orozco before earning a 14.55 on the rings in the final rotation. (His coach, Yin Alvarez, shook his fists and leapt in the air after watching Leyva stick the landing.)
Leyva's favorite events include the high bar, parallel bars and floor exercise. He was a gold medalist in the parallel bars as part of the team that won a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships, and he also was the high-bar champion at the Winter Cup Challenge last February.
When it was over Saturday, Leyva sat in a corridor eager to see what the men's team will accomplish this summer. The Visa Championships confirmed what he thought about the squad's potential.
"We've all been saying that we're going to be amazing at the Games," he said. "Tonight was huge, huge proof that it's true. We are going to be amazing at the Games. I can't wait to get the gold medal with the team at the Games. … The depth of the team is amazing. It's crazy. I love having so many guys fight for first place like they are."
Meanwhile, Orozco's first-place finish gives him confidence. Between smiles Saturday, he spoke about how he carried large dreams as a junior competitor. He planned to be in this position as early as three years ago.
Recently, Orozco had shown the ability to make those visions come true. He earned a fifth-place finish in the all-around competition at the 2011 World Championships. Later, at the most recent Winter Cup Challenge, he was crowned the champion in both the high bar and parallel bars.
"We all get along so great," he said. "We're all brothers. We all go through everything – the pain, the suffering, blood, sweat and tears, everything. We all go through it."
That bond will grow stronger when the gymnasts compete for coveted Olympics slots in San Jose. A veteran of the moment, Horton knows the hard work has only begun.
"We're going to keep plugging away," he said. "We're going get better and better. Those scores are going to continue going up. I'm a firm believer in what this team is capable of doing."