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?'”

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.”

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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