John Orozco eyes Olympic return, heartbreak behind him

John Orozco
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There was a time in John Orozco‘s life when he’d see his phone buzz immediately after a meet and try not to roll his eyes.

Orozco always answered. Always. Because Damaris Orozco needed to check in. Needed to see how her son was doing. Needed to share in his joy when things went well and provide a pep talk when they did not, a ritual Orozco sometimes indulged out of duty more than anything.

“I’d be like, ‘Mom, leave me alone. I just finished. I don’t want to talk about gymnastics,'” Orozco said with a hint of smile.

Even now, more than 15 months following her death on Valentine’s Day 2015, Orozco still waits almost reflexively for “Mom” to pop up on the screen. The call he occasionally dreaded is now the one he wishes he could take. He expects that feeling to resurface during the P&G Championships starting Friday in Hartford, Conn., one of two Rio Olympic selection meets, followed by the Olympic Trials later this month.

“I would give anything to tell her about competitions again and talk to her a little more,” Orozco said.

There’d be plenty to go over. The crushing grief he felt in the immediate aftermath of her passing. That terrifying day last June when he tore the Achilles heel in his right leg for a second time, an injury that doctors told him would take a year to recover from, a setback that seemed to put Orozco’s chances of making a second U.S. Olympic team in serious jeopardy.

“I told them a year was not the right answer,” he said. “I told them, ‘no, no, no, no.'”

The ensuing surgery forced Orozco to slow down. His training limited to what he could do with his upper body, Orozco could no longer keep his agony at arm’s length.

“I was like, ‘Where is my life headed right now?'” he said. “I was in a pretty dark place for a while. I think it’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes life isn’t fair and you want to cry and curl up in a corner and disappear … It’s necessary to soak in the sadness. Then it’s like, ‘OK, I had my little pity party, let’s get back on track.'”

A national champion as a teenager in 2012, the thoughtful 23-year-old from the Bronx is a study in resilience. He aggressively attacked his rehabilitation the second time around, making it to competition in eight months. He’ll walk onto the floor at the XL Center on Friday hoping to take another significant step toward making the five-man team that will head to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Games in August, albeit likely in a different role than the one he filled in London four years ago.

Back then he and Danell Leyva were the future of the men’s program while offering a study in contrasts. The expressive Leyva provided the flash, the stoic Orozco — nicknamed “Silent Ninja” — had the substance. Only London didn’t turn out as planned. The U.S. team topped qualifying but faded to fifth in the final, and Orozco’s hopes of finishing on the podium in the all-around final vanished when he came off the pommel horse not once but twice while coming in eighth.

“Everyone wants to keep throwing it 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 happens and it’s unfortunate because I had the potential to medal … I didn’t, but so what?'”

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The setbacks, however, were just starting. He tore the ACL in his left knee during the post-Olympic exhibition tour. Two years later he was on the 2014 World Championships team, this time as a specialist on parallel bars and high bar as the Americans earned bronze.

His mother’s health, always a concern, began to fail. There was little he could do while training out in Colorado with the majority of the national team, so at one point he took to social media asking for help after a surgery she desperately needed kept getting postponed. Meanwhile, he tried to bury himself in his job. The endorsement opportunities he’d hoped would pop up with a strong showing in London never really materialized. When Damaris’ battle finally ended, he wondered if he should just call coach Vitaly Marinitch and tell him he was heading back home to New York to start the next chapter of his life.

“I wanted to,” Orozco said. “But I knew in the back of my mind I was never going to let myself do that. I’d worked too hard. I’d put too many years in.”

So the guy who found a bit of stardom while being featured in the video for the Gym Class Heroes song “The Fighter” did just that. The breakthrough came last summer when doctors told him he could ditch the scooter he’d been using to get around in Colorado Springs for a walking boot. He woke up in the middle of the night and made it — slowly — to the bathroom on his own.

“I took the smallest step and was like ‘Yes!'” he said. “It was kind of like a bittersweet moment.’ I was missing my mom at the time. … I know it was hard because I usually wouldn’t like call her that much. I was 22, doing my own thing. This one time, I really felt like I could have called her. She would have been ecstatic.”

Her unyielding belief in him is one of the reasons Orozco kept going, though with a lower profile this time around. Four years ago he competed in the American Cup at Madison Square Garden as the hometown kid made good. This time he watched the same meet — being held across the river at the Prudential Center in New Jersey — on TV before taking the floor later that night as part of a smaller event.

The crowd was sparse, though it included his father, Willie, and his older brothers. His score of 89.1 was the best of the day and a sign his latest — and he hopes, his last — comeback is almost over. He competed at the Olympic Test Event in April, his third-place finish hardening his resolve to make a return trip this summer, even if he’s no longer the star of the U.S. team, a platform now occupied by three-time national champion Sam Mikulak and powerful 21-year-old Donnell Whittenburg. Orozco is simply happy to be a part of the mix. For now, that’s enough.

If he makes it, he knows the phone call he desperately wants to take will never come. That’s OK. In some ways, his mother feels closer than ever.

“I know she’s watching,” he said. “There are still struggles in life I don’t have control over, but I have to find light in the darkness.”

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was simply too good at the most crucial moments and claimed his 10th Australian Open championship and 22nd Grand Slam title overall by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.

The victory allows Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia did not compete in the Australian Open a year ago after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Government restrictions have eased since, and he was able to get a visa this time despite still not having gotten the shots against the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Now Djokovic has run his winning streak at the hard-court tournament to 28 matches.

His 10th trophy in Australia adds to the record he already held. His 22 major championships — which include seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open and two from the French Open — are tied with Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in the history of tennis.

He was superior throughout against Tsitsipas, but especially so in the two tiebreakers.

Djokovic took a 4-1 lead in the first and after it was 4-all, pulled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple then climbed into the stands, pumped his fist and jumped with his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, and other members of the entourage, before collapsing, crying.

Djokovic returned to the court, sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and let some more tears flow.

Margaret Court, with 24, Serena Williams, with 23, and Steffi Graf, with 22, have the most championships among women.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, allowing him to break a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most. Jimmy Connors holds that mark, at 109.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece’s other one also ended in a loss to Djokovic, at the 2021 French Open.

A win for Tsitsipas would have allowed him to get to No. 1 for the first time, supplanting Carlos Alcaraz, who got there after winning the U.S. Open last September but sat out the Australian Open because of a leg injury.

Little doubt this is of no solace to Tsitsipas, but there is no shame in failing to defeat Djokovic in Melbourne. Challenging his dominion on those blue hard courts is every bit the monumental task that taking on Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros is.

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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