- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

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 U.S. men’s championships starting Friday in Hartford, Connecticut, in the final tune up before the Olympic Trials later this month in St. Louis.

“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?’”

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 championship 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.”

___

Follow Will Graves at twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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