John Orozco

John Orozco’s mom on his mind as he leads P&G Championships

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PITTSBURGH — John Orozco strode off the competition floor and behind a black curtain at the Consol Energy Center. He checked his phone, and he grinned.

“She’s been texting me the whole time,” he said.

Orozco methodically marched to a surprising all-around lead on the first night of men’s competition at the P&G Championships on Friday. But he’s also in a rush to finish, fly home to the Bronx and see the person on the other end of that messaging conversation.

Orozco scored 90.75 points over six routines, edging Olympic teammate Jacob Dalton by .5 for first place halfway through the competition to crown the U.S.’ best gymnast.

NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air coverage of the second half Sunday from 2:30-4 p.m. ET. Gymnasts are also competing to be selected for the six-man team for the World Championships in Nanning, China, in the fall.

Orozco’s backstory was well told during the London Olympics.

One of five children raised by Puerto Rican parents, his mom, Damaris, used to drive him daily from the Bronx to the hamlet Chappaqua for gymnastics practice, usually more than an hour away with traffic.

Orozco’s parents aren’t in Pittsburgh watching him compete this week. He prefers it that way.

Damaris, who has lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, is having trouble with one of her surgically replaced knees. A decade ago, doctors inserted a metal rod to help her walk. Now, the rod is pushing her kneecap out to the side.

“They’ve been pushing [surgery] back for a month,” Orozco said. “They’ll push it back for another month unless they can somehow find money to pay for it.

“I’m going to give all the money I can so my mom can get this done with already. I’m so worried about her right now because I know she’s the kind to tough through it, even though it might not be smart for her to do it. She’s really tough, so I know she’ll push through it. I don’t want her to go through that right now.”

Orozco posted the highest scores on parallel bars (15.25) and high bar (15.7) Friday night. He did so with little pain, remarkable given his history.

The 2012 U.S. champion Orozco finished fourth in the all-around last year while wearing a knee brace after tearing an ACL and meniscus in October 2012. Orozco also tore an Achilles in 2010.

He was initially left off the 2013 World Championships team but added when 2011 U.S. champion Danell Leyva pulled out with a shoulder injury.

Orozco won bronze on parallel bars at Worlds, but another Olympic teammate, Sam Mikulak, had ascended to the top U.S. all-around threat. Mikulak beat Orozco at the American Cup in March.

Mikulak, the favorite coming into competition here, struggled on parallel bars and fell on his butt on floor exercise. He’s in fourth place, 2.35 points behind Orozco.

“It’s not over,” Mikulak said. “I’m excited to get out there and redeem myself.”

The men’s competition this weekend is bringing the gang back together. The entire 2012 U.S. Olympic team is here, including two-time Olympic medalist Jonathan Horton performing for the first time since London. He’s in 12th.

Leyva, Orozco and Horton all entered with points to prove, overcoming injuries or performance struggles. Orozco felt it.

“I was still kind of peeing my pants before some of the events that I was on,” he said, but adding, “it really felt like I was myself out there again.”

Orozco’s nerves were tested on the final event Friday. He went to the pommel horse, where he had fallen apart in the team final of the London Olympics, scoring 12.733 points two years ago. The U.S. team, which entered with medal expectations, finished fifth in London.

Orozco stayed on the horse this time, scoring 14.5 points (fourth out of 30 men).

After he dismounted, Leyva revealed to Orozco that his nightmarish pommel horse routine from the Olympics had played on the jumbotron before he went to perform.

“I’m really glad I didn’t see that before I went up,” Orozco said.

If Orozco finishes in the top two in the all-around after Sunday, and top three in at least three individual events, he will secure a spot on the World Championships team. The same team he initially didn’t make last year.

“All I can do is finish Sunday,” Orozco said, “and get home as fast as I can to help her out.”

Bond between Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles

Yulia Stepanova, doping whistleblower, appeals her Olympic ban

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - JULY 06:  Yuliya Stepanova looks on after finishing last in the Womens 800m heats during day one of the 23rd European Athletics Championships at Olympic Stadium on July 6, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images for European Athletics )
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Whistleblower Yulia Stepanova‘s hopes of competing in the Summer Olympics are all but over. Her fight to expose doping and corruption is not.

“It’s OK to lose a good fight,” Stepanova’s husband, Vitaly Stepanov, told The Associated Press on Monday.

They have appealed to the International Olympic Committee to reverse its decision, handed down Sunday, that denies Stepanova a chance at competing in the Rio Games, which begin Aug. 5. The decision, the Stepanovs claim, is based on incorrect information, including the IOC’s framing of Stepanova’s decision to become a whistleblower as a too-little-too-late desperation play made after the Russian team had cast her aside.

It’s a conclusion that both the World Anti-Doping Agency and track’s governing body, the IAAF, disagree with; both recommended Stepanova be allowed to compete in Rio.

But Stepanov said he received several signals that the IOC would not go along, beginning with a general lack of interest from the key decision makers. He said that during the push for Olympic eligibility, he spoke with two separate IOC officials for a total of 90 minutes.

“I think what the IOC didn’t do is spend enough time to understand how big the problem is in Russia and how much covering up is happening in Russian sports,” he said.

Stepanova was the 800-meter runner who was entrenched in the Russian doping system but later came forward with details about the cheating. That triggered investigations that led to the banning of the Russian track team from the Olympics. After receiving more information about Russian sports as a whole, the IOC opted against a ban of the entire Russian team.

Part of that decision included a ruling that any Russian with a previous doping ban would not be allowed in Rio. That includes Stepanova, though the legality of that ruling is in question: In 2011, the Court of Arbitration for Sport invalidated the IOC’s Rule 45, which called for Olympic bans for any athlete who’d served more than a six-month doping penalty. CAS said it amounted to double jeopardy.

It was one of several facets from the decision handed down Sunday that indicated the difficulty the IOC had in finding the right balance between, as president Thomas Bach called it, “individual justice and collective responsibility.” There also were political concerns; a Russian official addressed the IOC executive board and told members not to cave into geopolitical pressure.

While Russia largely welcomed the decision, it was roundly criticized by those in the anti-doping world. The move to ban Stepanova was widely viewed as the worst part of the judgment.

“The decision to refuse her entry in to the Games is incomprehensible and will undoubtedly deter whistleblowers in the future from coming forward,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Stepanov said his wife got a bout of the stomach flu on Sunday – making a bad day that much worse.

She was training for the Olympics, knowing that if she made it, she would not compete for a medal, the way she had in the past.

“Her goal is to participate,” Stepanov said. “In my view, she deserved to be an Olympian a lot more than when she was a doped athlete.”

But the odds are against her.

Stepanov said there is no money to fund an appeal to CAS, which would have the last say on her possible ban.

“Sunday was a day to cry a little, to get disappointed,” Stepanov said. “But today’s Monday. We feel we’re trying to fight for the right thing, so we wake up and start fighting again.”

MORE: Russian whistleblower denied bid to compete in Rio Olympics

Gabby Douglas ‘a very strong possibility’ for all-around, Martha Karolyi says

Gabby Douglas
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Gabby Douglas has “a very strong possibility” to get a chance to defend her Olympic all-around title in Rio, U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said Monday.

“Gabby’s preparation is in a very, very good direction, and I foresee that she can be in the all-around, but we’re not taking this decision as of now yet,” Karolyi said.

The U.S. will put no more than three women from its five-woman team in the all-around in qualifying. The top two Americans in qualifying will advance to the all-around final, the most prestigious individual competition in the sport.

“We have a tentative lineup, but that’s absolutely tentative and we would not reveal that lineup at the moment yet, because most likely there will be changes as time goes,” said Karolyi, adding that the lineup won’t be finalized until next week.

Simone Biles is considered a lock to be one of the all-arounders in qualifying. Who joins her is unclear.

Douglas and Aly Raisman were tapped at the 2015 World Championships, with Biles and Douglas topping Raisman in qualifying and then going one-two in the all-around final.

However, both Raisman and first-year senior Laurie Hernandez finished higher than Douglas in the all-around at the P&G Championships and the Olympic Trials in the last month.

Karolyi said that Douglas, who fell off the balance beam on both nights at the Olympic Trials, has improved at a pre-Olympic training camp. Karolyi also said that Douglas would not perform the difficult Amanar vault in Rio, which carries five tenths more in start value than the vault Douglas used at the Olympic Trials.

Biles and Raisman both perform the Amanar. If Biles, Douglas and Raisman do the all-around in qualifying, Douglas will go in with a start-value disadvantage in the chase to grab two available final spots.

In 2012, Douglas, Raisman and Jordyn Wieber all did the all-around in qualifying, with the 2011 World all-around champion Wieber finishing third out of the Americans (and fourth overall), missing the all-around final.

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