There were times during John Orozco's grueling rehab after he tore the ACL in his left knee during a post-Olympic tour two years ago that he figured his gymnastics career was done.
The good part of it anyway.
"I thought I was never going to be myself again," Orozco said. "But I took the time. I sobbed a little bit and I got over it and I told myself, 'Well I'm here now, there's no sense in looking back and thinking about it anymore.'"
Consider it forgotten.
Orozco took the lead at the U.S. championships on Friday night, displaying the consistency and occasional flair that earned him the nickname "Silent Ninja" while surging to the forefront of the U.S. men's program in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics. The 21-year-old who grew up in the Bronx posted the highest score on parallel bars and high bar on his way to a 90.750 that topped a crowded field of familiar faces.
"Today I got a little spark of how I used to be," Orozco said. "And now I have to hold onto it for the rest of my career ... or until Sunday."
Hey, it's a start. A year removed from his return to competition, Orozco has shed the bulky brace that stabilized his reconstructed knee. And while he admits it's still "jiggly" on the occasional vault landing, he was rock solid at the start of what amounts to an open audition for the world championship team the U.S. will send to China in October.
Orozco was so good he even pleased his harshest critic: himself.
A little focus helped. Orozco ended his night on the pommel horse. Moments before stepping to the podium, the in-house Jumbotron played video of his nightmarish pommel horse set during the Olympic team finals in London. He slipped off in the middle that August afternoon in front of Prince William, Princess Kate and the rest of the world as the U.S. eventually faded to fifth.
"Thank God I didn't see it," Orozco said with a laugh. "I'm glad I told myself, 'You know what you usually do. No looking around. Just focus and do your job.'"
Jake Dalton overcame a shaky pommels set to grab second, .500 behind Orozco. Danell Leyva is third. Defending champion Sam Mikulak heads into Sunday's final in fourth after bouncing back from some uncharacteristic early mistakes on parallel bars and floor.
Alex Naddour is fifth, with Donnell Whittenburg sixth and Brandon Wynn seventh.
Mikulak came in as the heavy favorite but his bid for a repeat title got off to a bumpy start. He fought his way through his parallel bar routine — pausing at one point to gather the strength to muscle his legs into the air — while opening with an ugly 13.550 that left him in 24th place. He spent the rest of the night trying to climb out of the hole. Mikulak blamed the miscue on a bad mix of honey and chalk gymnasts use to grip the bar as they swing from one end to the other.
"I was slipping all over the place," Mikulak said.
The laid-back former University of Michigan star was his typically charismatic self on high bar but his momentum faded when he ended up squatting on the blue mat during his floor exercise. He'll head to the finals trailing Orozco by 2.375, a far cry from the way Mikulak nearly lapped the field in the same meet a year ago.
"I just have to figure it out and redeem myself," he said.
It's a sentiment Leyva has repeated time and again as he tries to resurrect his flagging career. Two years ago, the U.S. went to London with hopes of grabbing a fistful of medals only to come home with one: the bronze Leyva earned in the all-around.
The Cuban-born Leyva figured his performance at O2 Arena would be a springboard to greater heights. Instead, he lost his way, spending most of the last two years adrift while struggling with consistency and confidence.
For one night anyway, both returned.
With his stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez providing a soundtrack with his trademark series of claps and whoops, Leyva showcased some of the swagger that made him the face of the U.S. team two years ago. The highlight may have come on high bar, which he turned into a 75-second theme park ride. He thrust his arms into the air after sticking his dismount and embraced Alvarez on his way off the podium.
While allowing he wasn't perfect, he was closer than he's been since that brilliant day in London. It's a start.
"I hit six for six," he said. "I didn't do my full values that I've trained but also, my butt wasn't on the ground when it wasn't supposed to be, so I'm happy with that."