John Orozco
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John Orozco eyes Olympic return, heartbreak behind him

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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?'”

MORE: 10 gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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.”

MORE: Danell Leyva’s dogs put down after biting incident

U.S. curlers reflect on success one year after Olympic gold

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Nearly a year has passed since he won gold in South Korea, and John Shuster can still smile about his transformation from obscure curler to Olympic sensation.

“It’s a lot of pinch-yourself kind of days,” he said.

Shuster is back on the ice this week, competing at the USA Curling National Championships. His team also includes two of his fellow gold medalists from 2018 — John Landsteiner and Matt Hamilton — and in a way, this event represents a return to normalcy for them all. The past year has been unlike any they’ve experienced before, an opportunity to celebrate their memorable victory and promote their sport.

“We went everywhere across the country. All summer, we were doing a lot of things — California to New York, in between,” Landsteiner said. “Barely any time at home. I think, before this event, I was home for two weeks in a row, and it was the most I’ve been home in a year and a half.”

The gold medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics capped a remarkable run for the much-maligned Shuster, a Minnesota native who won bronze at the 2006 Olympics but was spurned when he applied for the U.S. high performance program after the 2014 Games in Russia. Undeterred, Shuster put together a team good enough to make it to South Korea last year, and when the Americans beat Sweden for the gold medal, it was one of the highlights of the Olympics for U.S. fans.

Curling isn’t a mainstream Olympic showcase like hockey or figure skating, but it certainly has a niche among viewers who enjoy its quirks — and the relatability of the competitors. After returning home, Shuster’s team rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and was honored at an outdoor NHL game in Annapolis, Maryland.

Shuster recalls playing in a celebrity golf tournament with some other Minnesota athletes — and discovering that he had a parking space reserved for him.

“I remember pulling into the parking lot, I parked my car and I went walking by. I was like, oh, the top 10 people all have their own car parking spots, their names on it. As I was walking, it was like, Jason Zucker, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, John Shuster,” he said. “I’m like, wait a minute, I had a parking spot! There was like, probably 40 NHL and NFL players that were at this tournament, and there was only 10 people that had parking spots, and I was one of them.”

When an American team exceeds expectations at the Olympics the way Shuster’s did, a sport like curling has an opportunity to capitalize. Although the U.S. is a ways away from any kind of curling boom, there’s some evidence that the game is growing.

“Our local club here has gone from around 90 members to over 150, literally since the Olympics,” said Garnet Eckstrand of the Kalamazoo Curling Club.

There are even some new potential ambassadors gravitating to the sport . Former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen took up curling, forming a team with three other former NFL players: Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck and Titans tackle Michael Roos. Allen said he’d watched Olympic curling, and he certainly remembers Shuster’s big victory.

“They made this insane run, and it really was like, dude, that’s awesome,” Allen said. “The coolest part about it is, you can see the confidence clicking. Now when I watch them play . they know they can beat everybody.”

Allen and Roos have actually been competing at nationals in Michigan this week, although not on the same team. Shuster’s group, not surprisingly, will play for the title Saturday after mostly rolling through this tournament. The team’s game Thursday — a 9-0 victory — was so lopsided that the opponent conceded before the halfway point.

Last year, Shuster’s team didn’t compete at nationals — the tournament was around the same time as the post-gold medal victory tour. That’s not an issue this time around. There are more goals ahead for Shuster and his teammates — they have an Olympic title to defend, after all.

But even as they focus on the future, these American curling celebrities still have plenty of appreciation for what they’ve already accomplished.

“It’s been pretty incredible to see the uptick in interest, just based on us maybe winning a gold medal, but also not all that surprising,” Shuster said. “Curling has a way of hooking you, when you give it a legitimate try.”

Kristoffersen topples Hirscher to win giant slalom at worlds

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ARE, Sweden — Norwegian skiing is in safe hands, even with its beloved king now in retirement.

Henrik Kristoffersen gave Norway its second individual gold medal of the world championships by toppling an under-the-weather Marcel Hirscher to win the giant slalom on Friday.

With Kjetil Jansrud also victorious in the downhill last week, Norway appears in great shape heading into the post-Aksel Lund Svindal era.

Svindal signed off his illustrious career with a silver medal behind Jansrud in the downhill, and said he was leaving behind a strong generation of Norwegian skiing talent.

Kristoffersen is at the forefront of that — especially now that he has ended his long wait for a medal at a world championship.

The 24-year-old Kristoffersen had finished fourth in his last three races at the worlds — the giant slalom and slalom in 2017 and the slalom in 2015 — and headed into his second run of the GS in third place behind leader Alexis Pinturault and Hirscher, the favorite and one of skiing’s all-time greats.

However, Kristoffersen produced an aggressive run under the lights, his speed and flow particularly apparent in the bottom section, to win by 0.20 seconds over Hirscher. Pinturault won the bronze medal, 0.42 seconds back.

“It was about time to get a medal,” said Kristoffersen, who wasn’t necessarily expecting it to come in GS.

Kristoffersen’s last win in the discipline came at Meribel in 2015 and he has been consistently behind Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup winner and defending Olympic and world GS champion. He finished second to Hirscher at last year’s Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Kristoffersen was without a win in any discipline for a year but said he gained confidence from the course being doused with salt to maintain the snow surface amid unseasonably warm weather. The temperature in Are for the first leg was 8 C (46 F).

“There’s no one that skis on salt as much as Norwegians do,” he said. “Even though I haven’t trained on salt in GS in a long, long time, I have it from childhood.”

Hirscher’s preparations for the race were affected by a bout of flu that kept him in bed for much of the past two days. He acknowledged after the race that the likelihood of him lining up on the starting gate wasn’t high on Thursday.

“Normally,” Hirscher said, “if you have regular work on those days, you normally tell your boss I’m done for the day.”

Yet he managed to be only 0.10 seconds behind Pinturault after an error-free first run, keeping Hirscher on course for a record-tying seventh gold medal at the worlds. But he went wide at two gates in the top section of his second run, causing him to lose 0.41 seconds on Kristoffersen in the middle section.

“Second place is the first loser but Henrik had an amazing day with two great runs,” Hirscher said. “Henrik is at the top for such a long time. He was more than ready for a world title.”

Hirscher, who was noticeably sniffing after the race, added that he was “looking forward to getting back to bed again” to rest up ahead of Sunday’s slalom.

When Pinturault crossed the finish line in third place, Kristoffersen clenched his fists before walking into the finish area, crouching on one knee and acknowledging the jubilant Norwegian fans in the grandstand.

For Pinturault, it was his second medal of the championships after winning the Alpine combined on Monday.