Men's gymnastics: how John Orozco shrugged off Olympic-size insecurities

John Orozco, a key piece of the US men's gymnastics team competing at the Olympics Monday, was bullied as a kid. He's not the only Olympian who had to conquer insecurities to get to London.  

Dylan Martinez/REUTERS
John Orozco of the US competes in the rings event during the men's gymnastics qualification in the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games Saturday.

American gymnast John Orozco is the image of the Olympic ideal. Kind, cheerful, talented, and bound in so much pure muscle that he could punch a hole through the springboard, Orozco is a young man made to be on a Wheaties box.

But growing up in the Bronx, he stuck out in a different way. He was the "gymnast kid" getting bullied.

America's male gymnasts are the figure skaters of the summer Games – each inconceivable hold on the rings or flip on the high bar a protest against the lingering perception that they are competing in a girl's sport. For a young Orozco, however, every day at school was a battle, too.

"All the kids would tease me, and when it started off, I was pretty down about it," he said at a media summit in May. "When I walked into school, they would say, 'There's the gymnast kid who walks around in tights.' "

Heading into Monday's men's team event at the London Olympics, Orozco says those days are long behind him. He is, he says, someone who can "let all the hateful things people say go right through me." 

For some of the men and women at the London Games, that is a surprisingly necessary skill. Even in an athlete's village teeming with bodies seemingly honed to Olympic perfection, insecurities abound. From the British swimmer who had to quit Twitter after so many hurtful comments about her appearance to the US weightlifting "girly girl" who – as a high school football player – was thought of as an "abomination," Olympians are not immune from bullying words and outrageous body-image expectations. And overcoming them can simply become another challenge on their Olympic journey.

For Orozco, overcoming the bullying was a question of patience and passion. From the first moment he entered a gym at age 9, he knew he was home. Even from the hallway of the gym, the "smack of the mat and the squeal of the bar" set his pulse racing. When he stepped on the mat, he immediately started doing cartwheels.

The coach walked in, bemused. "You have to stretch first," Orozco recalled him saying. 

When Orozco got home, he was still practicing his handstands. 

This singleminded focus – and the success that eventually followed – had a powerful impact on his schoolmates. "The kids started to get what was going on," he said. Those who had teased him were now saying, "There's John Orozco. He's going to the Olympics. I want to sit next to him."

At the media summit, a wry smile passes his lips as he leans back in his chair, so evidently satisfied with how far he has come. The possibility of this moment meant too much to the kid doing handstands in this living room. "When they started off making fun of me, I didn't care," he said. "I wasn't going to let them take that way from me."

"If you keep that in you, it will destroy you," he added.

Two-time Olympic champion freestyle swimmer Rebecca Adlington of Britain has admitted as much. In a May interview with the British newspaper the Guardian, she confessed that she could no longer read Twitter or the comments below articles about her.

"I learned very quickly not to do that. It is awful and I get angry," she said. "Even if there are 10 nice comments, you get one idiot. I've now given up."

For Adlington, the glow of Olympic adoration after winning gold in spectacular fashion in the 400 and 800 meters in Beijing has always been mixed with the bitter drop of ridicule. Twice in the past three years, Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has mocked her appearance, first saying she looked like “someone looking at themselves in the back of a spoon” and then, as recently as a few days ago, saying she had a "dolphin's face." Adlington went so far as to complain to the BBC, which aired the first comment on its "Mock the Week" show in 2009.

Many British fans, not surprisingly, have been appalled. But similar comments from trolls on Twitter made her give up the social media site for a time, despite having 50,000 followers. "Most things that I read about myself are not swimming related," Adlington told the Guardian. "They are to do with how I look, which has nothing to do with my performance in the pool.... I can't help the way I look or who I am." 

Even Jessica Ennis, a gold-medal favorite in the heptathlon (the women's version of the decathlon) and the British face of the London Games, has not been immune.

Lithe and powerful as a cracked whip, she has been called “fat” and accused of carrying “too much weight” by a top official in the British track and field governing body, according to her coach. One teammate called the comments a "disgrace."

For her part, Ennis didn't seem bothered. Six days after the story broke, she set a new British record in the heptathlon. "Everyone has their hang-ups, but I see my body as a training tool, and I feel good about it," she told the Telegraph, a British newspaper. 

The 5-foot-8, 340-pound Holley Mangold goes further. She loves her body.

The sister of New York Jets offensive lineman Nick Mangold, Holley made her own name on the football field, playing as a lineman on her high school team in Ohio – the boy's team. 

"The women were not happy that I was one of the men," she said at the media summit. "They always thought I was an abomination."

And the dads? "If I beat up your son, they're not going to be happy about it," she added. 

All of this, however, comes with a smile. In a world where both sexes have squeezed women into size zero expectations, Mangold somehow manages to have hit the eject button.

"My sister is 5-foot 6 and runs marathons, and I'm way more self-confident [about my body] than she is."

That confidence, in fact, won her a spot on MTV's Emmy-winning show "True Life."

"Holley is so at ease with her size," Marshall Eisen, an executive producer on "True Life," told the New York Daily News. "She does stand out, but she doesn't project insecurity that you might expect. She's proud of it."

Added Mangold: "If I can help other people feel more comfortable, that’s great."

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