LONDON -- John Orozco knew from an early age he never quite fit in.
Not at school, where his classmates would tease the soft-spoken Orozco for his shyness. Not in the gritty Bronx neighborhood where he grew up, the one his parents Willie and Damaris did their best to protect their five children from.
The only place Orozco felt really alive, the only place he felt at home, was the gym.
No, not the one with weights and treadmills and basketball hoops, the one with the vault and the high bar and the foam pit. The one that invades American living rooms every four years at the Olympics.
Orozco got sucked in long ago. Sitting transfixed watching American Paul Hamm grab the gold in Athens eight years ago, Orozco envisioned the day he would walk onto the floor under the five Olympic rings in a Team USA uniform.
He'll do that again Wednesday in the men's all-around final, the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice by Orozco, his family and the coaches and clubs that supported him from rambunctious youngster into ambitious prodigy.
And the thoughtful 19-year-old understands there's more at stake than just personal glory.
The dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican parents knows he – as well as Cuban-born American Danell Leyva and women's rising star Gabby Douglas, who is black – are beacons.
"I hope I can be a role model and a good inspiration for kids that have been in my situation," Orozco said.
Since Ron Galimore broke the color barrier when he made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that ended up boycotting the Moscow Games, there have been a handful of minority American stars, most notably four-time Olympic medalist Dominique Dawes.
Yet Orozco, Leyva and Douglas are at the front of a new wave that could render the notion obsolete that elite gymnastics are for mostly affluent, predominantly white suburban kids.
They're hardly alone at the top as it is. Elizabeth Price and Kennedy Baker, who are both black, made the senior national team, with Price serving as an Olympic alternate.
Josh Dixon, whose is of Asian and African-America descent, made the men's senior national team. The program's two most promising juniors – Donnell Whittenberburg and Marvin Kimble – are both black.
If Leyva, who topped qualifying, Orozco or Douglas stand atop the medal podium after their respective all-arounds this week, the wave could turn into a flood. Orozco came in fourth behind Leyva during preliminaries, while Douglas was third.
"I think times have changed," said Raj Bhavsar, a member of the 2008 U.S. men's Olympic gymnastic team who is Indian-American. "I don't think it has anything to do with being more inclusive or a change in the political side of the support. I just think these gymnasts, regardless of background, happen to be the best."
USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny says there's been a movement at the club level to embrace diversity.
"The gymnastics community really does take ownership of talent," Penny said. "When they see kids that really want to do the sport, they'll go above and beyond to keep them in the sport. I think John Orozco is an example of that."
Orozco's potential became readily apparent after taking up the sport as a young child. He quickly outgrew the small gym in Manhattan where he began competing and began training at World Gym in leafy Chappaqua, just north of the city.
The 45-minute commute each way could be soul-deadening. Yet Orozco never missed a day. Neither did his parents, who did what they could to meet the considerable financial burden that comes with trying to help their youngest child pursue his dreams.
When there were birthday parties at the gym, Willie and Damaris would serve as crowd control while their son did tricks to entertain the other kids. When a new floor needed to be installed, Willie joined the crew that put it in.
Despite working alongside well-heeled kids, Orozco insists he never felt out of place. The only real instance of racism he encountered came during a free camp at West Point.
Orozco arrived giddy at the thought of spending a few days away from the city. Two days in, he woke up and told his parents he didn't want to go.
"He went to play with this kid and the kid told him, 'Get away from me. My mom said black people carry diseases,'" Willie Orozco said. "It was sad. It really was sad."
It was also rare.
Rather than racism, the Orozcos found a sense of community, where John became "John from the gym." As Orozco rose through the ranks, so did the cost. The high-profile meets kept getting farther and farther away.
Yet the folks at World Gym understood the singular talent they had on their hands. Anonymous donors would chip in when they could. Owner John Sabalja would sometimes work out a barter system to make sure the Orozcos weren't overwhelmed.
"John's the kind of kid you get one in a hundred lifetimes," said Carl Schrade, who coached Orozco until he reached middle school.
Maybe to Schrade, but not to Orozco.
He knows there are others out there like him, minorities whose curiosity for the sport needs to be nurtured. At some point he would like to open a gym in his old neighborhood, a place for kids looking for a place to fit in to call home.
"Maybe one day they'll become a real club gym and be competing and everything," Orozco said. "That's my dream. And I want to start opening up increasingly. Not just from the Bronx. Expanding to places like Brooklyn, and then out to different cities. That would be really cool."
It's a dream that could come closer to reality if Orozco continues his rise. The U.S. men struggled in the team final on Monday, Orozco shouldering a heavy part of the blame after uncharacteristic miscues on both pommel horse and vault.
Though it's unlikely either he or Leyva will have a chance of supplanting three-time defending world champion Kohei Uchimura, they'll be in the mix for a medal.
They'll also be on TV, their faces – ones of color – reflecting a change in a program that is becoming as diverse as the country it represents.
Ileana "Ike" Lochte
During the Olympic Trials in Omaha Ryan gave a big cyber thank you to his mother. "I got to spend a little time tonight after my race with the two most important women in my life," Ryan wrote on his <a href="http://ryanlochte.com/blog/2012/06/thank-you-mom/" target="_hplink">website</a>. "My beautiful mom and beautiful grandma who is 91 years old!! Thank you mom and grandma for always being there for me!"
Behind Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva is a man frantically cheering in the sidelines. Yin Alvarez is well known for yelling things like "That's my boy!" and "You're the best, baby!," complemented with expressive hand gestures, as his stepson competes. Alvarez, Team USA coach and past Cuban gymnast, and his wife, also a past Cuban gymnast, train Danell in their South Florida gym--Universal Gymnastics. "Everybody thinks it's an embarrassment because he acts so crazy, but it's actually a big help," Leyva told <em><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/sports/olympics/with-stepfathers-coaching-danell-leyva-reaches-for-an-olympic-gold.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink">The New York Times</a></em>. "I love hearing him. I love his energy and passion. I feed off of it. It definitely makes me better." Photo: Danell Leyva and his coach Yin Alvarez react after Leyva competed on the high bar during day 3 of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials at HP Pavilion on June 30, 2012 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Take a peek at the stands while Puerto Rican-American gymnast John Orozco competes and you'll find a woman on the edge of her seat--nervous but determined to cheer. Raising a family in the Bronx, Damaris Orozco knew how difficult it would be for John to become an olympic gymnast. But she was intent to make her child's dream come true. So she would drive him everyday to World Cup Gymnastics in Chappaqua--a car ride that took nearly an hour each way. He trained hard, but she knew that her boy was still being taunted for what he chose to do. Before the ride <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/news-blogs/gymnastics/new-york-gymnast-makes-unique-journey-to-olympics.html?chrcontext=team-usa&cid=rss" target="_hplink">she would ask him if he was sure he wanted to go</a>, and every time John would reassure her he did. "I said, 'Mom, there's no way I'm ever going to quit gymnastics,'" Orozco told the <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/news-blogs/gymnastics/new-york-gymnast-makes-unique-journey-to-olympics.html?chrcontext=team-usa&cid=rss" target="_hplink">Associated Press</a>. "I'm going to go until my limbs fall off.'"
Behind the Olympic Taekwondo Lopez trio--Steven, Diana, and Mark--is Nicaraguan mother Ondina Lopez. Jean, her fourth and eldest, is their coach. Often a nervous spectator, Ondina avoids seeing her children compete. That is until the Beijing 2008 Games, when all three qualified and medaled. "Growing up with three older brothers and being the youngest and the only girl, my mom always made me tough," Diana Lopez said to <a href="http://espn.go.com/espnw/athletes-life/7916781/espnw-olympian-diana-lopez-gets-kicks-family" target="_hplink">ESPN</a>. "She's taught me over the years how to be a strong, independent woman, how to carry yourself in a positive way and anything that my brothers can do, I can do."
Joseph Diaz Sr.
It's not hard to guess that behind a Jr. there's a Sr.--but Joseph Diaz Sr. has been more than a father to "JoJo" over the years. After losing his job, he realized that his son's interest in boxing, which began as self-defense, had turned into a passion. The Mexican-American quickly began to watch YouTube videos and talk to trainers, preparing himself to train his son to become a champion. "Me and my father have a really great bond," Diaz Jr. told <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/boxing/interview-with-joseph-diaz-jr-and-sr.html" target="_hplink">NBCOlympics.com</a>. "I mean, he's my father, my best friend, my coach, my everything. And especially knowing that he's right by my side, at the gym, at my house, even with situations outside of the gym, I tell him and he just gives me the best advice."
Marlen Esparza, the Mexican-American boxer, grew up soaking up the sport. Her and her father, David, would sit and watch matches together--a bonding experience turned life dream. But David always hoped that one of his <em>sons</em> would pick-up the sport. Sure enough it was his little girl who would show the heart and determination to become the first Hispanic female boxer to represent the United States in the Olympics. "I decided to be a boxer because I grew up watching boxing with my dad," Ezparza told <a href="http://www.laaficion.com/noticias/106273-marlen-esparza-hace-historia" target="_hplink">laaficion.com</a>. "It was a big part of my childhood. I did it because I wanted to prove to myself that I could box, and I took advantage of when I was sent to supervise my brother while he trained. At first my mother didn't want me to get hurt, but the one who was most reluctant to let me fight was my father."