John Orozco looks to 2016 after tearing Achilles

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NEW YORK — John Orozco smiled often during his TODAY show appearance Wednesday to celebrate the one-year countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympics.

The 2012 Olympic gymnast laughed as he participated in a “Culinary Olympics” with fellow Olympians retired swimmer Janet Evans and soccer player Christie Rampone.

Orozco hardly looked like a man who on June 18 posted on social media, “my family life, my career, and my spirit seem to be falling apart and crumbling into pieces.”

“There is nothing life can throw at me that will keep me down,” Orozco said Wednesday at Rockefeller Plaza. “I have been through so much already.”

Orozco’s recent adversity started in February, when his mother, Damaris, died. Growing up, Damaris regularly drove her son more than an hour to gymnastics practice, despite battling lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Orozco still does not feel comfortable discussing his mother’s death publicly, other than to say, “with the support of my family, we can get through anything.”

After his mother’s death, Orozco focused his remaining energy on training for the summer’s Pan American Games. But he soon encountered even more challenges.

While performing a double twisting back on a floor exercise pass on a Monday in June, Orozco felt a sudden pain in his right leg. He matter-of-factly told his coach that he tore an Achilles tendon. His coach was skeptical, assuming that somebody who had suffered such a traumatic injury would be screaming in pain. But Orozco turned out to be right.

“I have never been the type to really freak out when I get injured,” Orozco said. “I do that on my own afterwards.”

He did not shed his first tear until after undergoing surgery later that week. Orozco, who refers to himself as a “veteran at being injured,” also suffered a torn Achilles in August 2010. He recovered in time to compete at the Japan Cup less than 11 months later. He then suffered a torn left ACL in October 2012 and returned to win a bronze medal on parallel bars at the 2013 World Championships.

His most recent Achilles injury will prevent Orozco from going to the World Championships in October, but he never considered quitting the sport.

“Absolutely not,” Orozco said. “I have had this injury before, so I know I can come back from it. I know what to do this time around.”

He is targeting a return in 2016 and will focus on events that require upper-body strength, such as the pommel horse, rather than leg-intensive events.

“The good thing about it is my key events for the Olympic and World teams for the U.S. are not floor involved,” Orozco said. “I can start training for those already before I even start running.”

Refusing to let his injury slow him down, the 22-year-old even performed a handstand on the TODAY set while wearing a protective boot over his right foot.

“I realize that I am getting a little older in gymnastics,” Orozco said. “I now know I need to be smarter and treat my body right.”

In the same June 18 social media post, Orozco wrote that he kept asking himself, “why is this happening right now? Where’s the lesson in this?”

He found a lesson in the recent weeks of reflection.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Orozco said. “This is just another battle to win.”

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”