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Orozco, Leyva are the ying and yang of men's gymnastics trials

Published June 28, 2012 1:43 pm

Olympic Trials • What they is a history of bucking the odds
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John Orozco and Danell Leyva are a sharp contrast in gymnastic styles.

Leyva, the face of the U.S. men's program, is known for charismatic routines that are breathtaking in their boldness. Orozco, the rising upstart, is more workmanlike with a subtle precision that has earned him the nickname "Silent Ninja" for the way he sneaks up on opponents.

But what they have in common are uniquely American backstories of persevering against all odds. And their shared, single-minded focus to excel will be on display as the men's portion of the U.S. Olympic trials begin Thursday at HP Pavilion.

"They are the top two guys in the country, and it's crazy how different they are," fellow competitor Jonathon Horton said Wednesday. "Danell just does some crazy stuff out there and John is always in this zone. But they both work so hard."

Orozco and Leyva, who finished one-two in a high-drama finish at the Visa national championships earlier this month, are the favorites. But the battle for the five Olympic berths will be fierce among the 15 competitors. This could be the deepest crop of men's gymnasts since 1984, which is the last time the U.S. struck Olympic gold.

Horton, 26, a two-time U.S. all-around champion and mainstay of the bronze-medal squad four years ago in Beijing, is making a strong comeback after foot surgery. Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and Chris Brooks also are among the threats to make the squad.

"This is more nerve-wracking than the Olympics because there's so much more pressure just getting to London," Horton said. "I don't know if anyone is a lock on this team. There's going to be two or three guys who do deserve to be on this team, but won't be. That's just the reality."

But it will be surprising if Orozco and Leyva don't qualify.

"I've always pictured myself at this moment and having to perform," Leyva said. "This is what I've been working toward my entire life."

Added Orozco: "Since I was 13 I would lie in bed, looking up at the ceiling, and imagine the feeling when the Olympic team was announced. Now it's go time. No more dreaming. I have to make it happen."

They both already have achieved much in the face of steep obstacles.

Orozco, 19, was raised in the Bronx, N.Y., one of five children born to parents from Puerto Rico. Money was tight. But Orozco fell in love with gymnastics at age 8 after his dad, a sanitation worker, saw a flyer for free tryouts on a Manhattan lamp post.

Despite taunts from classmates over his sport of choice — "There's not many male gymnasts in the Bronx," Orozco explained — he was so good that within months his mother was driving him to an elite club 25 miles away, six days a week.

That was just the start of sacrifices and challenges.

He overcame a torn right Achilles tendon. His father, William, suffered a debilitating stroke in 2007, just before his son won a junior national title in San Jose. His mother, Damaris, has her own health problems and recently was hospitalized.

But both will be in San Jose, cheering for him.

"It's great being at this moment and still being proud of where I came from and the background that I have," Orozco said. "You can do anything you want to do, and don't let anyone tell you any different."

Leyva's journey has been even more unlikely. He was born in Cuba to a mother who competed on the national gymnastics team. Maria Gonzalez defected with her young daughter and son when Danell was about18 months old. She worried that he wasn't getting the proper treatment for severe asthma and breathing allergies.

A six-month odyssey took them through Guatemala and Peru before finally reaching Miami. There, she reconnected with Yin Alvarez, a childhood friend who also had been in the Cuban gymnastics program and defected earlier.

Exercise helped Leyva outgrow his health problems and he excelled in the gym under the tutelage of Alvarez, who became his coach and stepfather. Leyva, 20, established himself as the gymnast to beat by winning the 2011 national all-around title and going on to become world champion in the parallel bars — the first for a U.S. man since 2003.

It's a huge honor to be in this position because I wasn't born here," Leyva said. "It's great to know that I came from somewhere else and this country still opened its arms to me and allows me the chance to represent everyone."

Leyva was expected to win at this month's nationals . . . before Orozco lived up to this "Silent Ninja" moniker. Orozco didn't win a single event, but quietly produced one steady routine after another. He completed the upset victory with a huge final event in the floor exercise to nip Leyva by 0.05 of a point to win the men's all-around title.

That set up their friendly showdown in San Jose.

"They're great guys who definitely have really cool stories," Horton said. "I wish I had a story like they do. It's great

for the sport when people hear about everything they've been through."

The top two all-round men, based on the combined scores from the national competition and the trials, automatically qualify for London. The remaining three gymnasts will be selected by a committee.

"Anything can happen," Orozco said. "There might be some surprises. There always seems to be something that shocks people."

memmons@mercurynews.com