He’s nicknamed “Silent Ninja” by his friends for his ability to sneak up on the competition… And, that’s just what John Orozco has done at the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Championships.
Competing in his final event on Saturday, the calculator in the 19-year-old Puerto Rican gymnast’s head told him he hadn’t done enough to catch his front-running teammate and fellow Latino gymnastics star, 20-year-old Cuban-American Danell Leyva.
“I was thinking to myself ‘I don’t think that will do it,’ ” Orozco said after ending his floor exercise routine.
But then the scoreboard flashed:15.500. Somewhere in the crowd, Orozco’s mother, Damaris, shrieked. The “Silent Ninja” had done it again, this time to claim the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics title.
The best floor score Orozco can remember ever seeing next to his name propelled him to a two-round total of 184.850 and the national title, just ahead of Leyva’s 184.800.
“He doesn’t know how to lose,” said two-time U.S. champion Jonathan Horton, who finished fourth. “He doesn’t have a weakness. He’s just a phenomenal gymnast. The one thing is, he gets in a zone and you can’t break it.”
Horton, Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and Chris Brooks also secured automatic bids to the Olympic trials in three weeks. Brandon Wynn, Paul Ruggeri, David Sender and Alex Buscaglia were awarded trial spots based on a points system developed by USA Gymnastics officials, and Steven Legendre, Glen Ishino, Alex Naddour, Joshua Dixon and C.J. Maestas received invitations from the selection committee.
Barring any calamity, Orozco and Leyva can book their flights to London as the leaders of perhaps the strongest American team since 1984. The top four on Saturday posted more than 90 points for the second straight round — the threshold for elite Olympians — giving the Americans plenty to work with as the Olympics loom.
And that — not slipping past Leyva in the final moments — is what mattered most to Orozco.
“For me it really wasn’t about winning, but it was about putting together a good routine and a good performance and showing how we’re going to do in London,” Orozco said. “Hopefully this is going to be a preview.”
“Of course I’m upset I didn’t get first and it’ll drive me to win trials,” Leyva said. “I’m upset with myself, but I’m not mad. I’m actually happy … because everybody’s doing amazing.”
Orozco may lack Leyva’s flair, but he makes up for it with quiet elegance and precision. Both were on display as he closed on Saturday.
While Leyva labored through his pommel horse routine, Orozco — with Damaris “watching” from the stands with her eyes covered — sailed over the high bar to post a score of 15.850 and draw within less than a point.
Still, Leyva appeared to have things in hand and seemed safe after a clean run on the still rings. He and stepfather/coach, Yin Alvarez, celebrated after Leyva stuck the landing, figuring his 14.550 was enough to clinch a second straight national title. Even Horton figured the drama was over.
“I was getting ready to go, but I heard (Leyva) hit the floor and in my head I went, ‘Congrats,'” said Horton.
Only problem, Orozco wasn’t quite finished.
Moving fluidly through his 45-second floor routine, Orozco channeled a breakdancer while doing a series of flares and appeared cemented to the ground at the end of each tumbling run, with not a misstep in sight.
“It’s definitely the best floor routine I’ve ever done,” Orozco said.
Orozco knows if he and his teammates can match their scores in London, the U.S. is a threat to reach the top of the podium for the first time in 28 years. Though he didn’t win an individual gold this weekend, Orozco finished among the top eight in all six events. It’s that kind of consistency that can help guide a team to Olympic glory.
Orozco’s not ready to think about it, but Horton is. The 26-year-old helped the U.S. land a bronze in Beijing four years ago, then added a silver on high bar. He knows what will happen if the U.S. can duplicate its top scores from this weekend at the O2 Arena next month.
“We’re going to freak a lot of people out,” Horton said. “We’re going to make a lot of people go ‘Wow, Team USA is no joke.’ “