Gymnast John Orozco opens up on country switch

The U.S. Olympian was cleared this week to represent Puerto Rico

By Scott Bregman

John Orozco is returning to his roots.

The gymnast, who represented the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London at just 19 years old, has recently been cleared to compete for Puerto Rico, where both his parents were born before moving to the United States.

“I have the goal of just being able to represent the place that my family's from. I never got to do that, and I feel more connected to my community and the people that represent me,” Orozco told Olympic Channel Tuesday. “I'll be able to go out there and be person that I never had.”

The switch had been on his mind growing up, he says, but he wanted to prove he could contend with the best of the U.S. men. And he did, making two U.S. Olympic teams, winning the 2012 U.S. title, and helping Team USA to a team bronze medal at the 2014 World Championships.

Taking it slow

Despite all his previous success, Orozco is realistic about his chances of returning to the Olympics in 2020. That doesn't mean it isn't still on his mind, however.

“It is in the back of my head, that's why I've been training all-around,” Orozco said.

In order to qualify a spot for the Tokyo Olympics, he’d need to finish in the top two in the all-around at May’s Pan American Championships.

His return to the sport is a balancing act. He sees a long road ahead yet doesn’t want to be complacent.

“It is a longer term goal,” he said. “But I do want to push myself within my limits to see how far I can get this year. I know I had a sort of late start, getting consistent with my workouts and everything, but I definitely do want to see what I can do this year.”

Adding, “I don't to set [the Olympics] as a hard goal for myself just because I know how I am and I don't want to get to too wrapped up trying to achieve that goal, because that's usually how I get hurt.

“So, I have to really take my time and take it slow coming back.”

Coming back to move on

Life after being a professional athlete hasn’t been easy for Orozco.

“I realized after like 16 years [of gymnastics], for someone like me, who's doesn't come from a place where education is important, where education is not something that's really held to a high standard or is important, I realized that I didn't go to school. I don't have any degree. I don't have any other skills,” Orozco told Olympic Channel.

A fan favorite, Orozco’s career came to an abrupt halt just weeks before he was supposed to compete in his second Olympics at Rio 2016, an ACL tear during practice ending his hopes.

It was another in a long line of misfortunes for the Bronx, New York native. Orozco had battled his way back from an Achilles tendon tear in 2015 and overcame the loss of his mother, Damaris, to deliver a stirring performance at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“I can’t believe it. I really left everything I had out there,” he said after the triumph of making his second U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. “It was the last name that they called and I thought that I was going to stop breathing. I couldn’t believe it.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. After the injury, he rehabbed, participated in part of the post-Rio gymnastics tour throughout the United States and then, ultimately, stepped away from the sport. He moved to Los Angeles, where he started taking classes in music and audio production. He even released his first single, ‘What Goes Up’ in early 2019.

But being a gymnast was all he had known, and he wasn’t sure what came next.

That’s brought him back to his sport, hoping to once again draw attention to his story in order help himself and others move forward.

“I want to use this last step in my career to learn and then teach other athletes who come from the same background as me how to prepare and how to adjust to life after athletics,” he said. “I feel like getting myself on the stage again, getting myself out there and my story, I can also spread some knowledge and educate other athletes who may be in the same position that I'm in.”