John Orozco Aiming for Olympic Gold – And to Move His Family Out of the Bronx

John Orozco: Olympics 2012 Gymnast Aiming for Gold
John Orozco
Ezra Shaw/Getty

updated 07/28/2012 AT 08:05 PM EDT

originally published 07/19/2012 AT 07:45 PM EDT

John Orozco's lifelong dream could come true in London in a matter of days. His Olympic story begins on TV Saturday night with the broadcast of the men's gymnastics qualifications.

When Manhattan sanitation worker William Orozco signed up his 7-year-old son John for free inner-city gymnastics lessons back in 2000, he had no idea that he had an Olympian on his hands.

Today, 12 years and countless hours of training later, Orozco, 19, is one of this summer's most compelling rising stars – and a gold medal favorite for the USA in gymnastics.

Orozco's journey to London hasn't been the easiest. Growing up in a blue-collar section of the Bronx, Orozco had more than homework and gym practice to juggle: He also had to avoid fights with local lawbreakers.

But despite his rough surroundings (and having to share a bedroom with three older brothers), Orozco stuck with gymnastics and eventually switched to a Chappaqua, N.Y., gym for advanced lessons. That's where his coaches recognized he had major potential.

"Around 13 years old I realized I really wanted to get serious," Orozco tells PEOPLE. "So that's the time when I knew, 'Okay, I gotta turn my dreams into a goal.' "

Six years later, he narrowly edged out high-profile teammate Danell Leyva at the 2012 Visa Championships and placed second in the Olympic Trials. This week, he traveled to London with the rest of the team.

Family Sacrifices

Orozco's Olympic dream has required a fair amount of sacrifice from his family: Unable to afford his lessons in Chappaqua, his parents had to work out a financial arrangement with the gym.

"My whole family was working there at one point," says Orozco, who stresses how grateful he is for their help. He even plans to "get [them] out of the Bronx one day."

"I want to buy them a little house in Colorado near me," he says. "I like to stay close to them, have meals with them. Family means everything to me, so the closer we are, the better."

In fact, Orozco's already done his family one huge favor: His corporate sponsor, Chobani Yogurt, is paying for their entire trip to London.

But he's still proud of the Bronx, even after recalling incidents like the day when he was 10 and he and his brothers fought off a large group of knife-wielding men while on their way home from church. One of his brothers was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized for days, the gymnast remembers.

"That's not the only time something like that happened, but it was definitely the worst," he says.

Screen Aspirations

His story was such an inspiring one that he became the central character in Gym Class Heroes's moving music video for The Fighter (watch below). In it, Orozco performs gymnastics skills and routines in Bronx playgrounds and barbershops. It also features training footage from his childhood and today.

"I want to be in movies one day, I love singing and acting," says Orozco, who names Nicole Scherzinger as his celebrity crush. "She's just ... oh, wow!" he says with a laugh.

Ultimately, Orozco is modest about his top-tier Olympic status – and says he cares more about the USA team as a whole than his own personal success.

"Team USA is going to stick together," he says. "We're always going to be together, helping each other out."

The last time the U.S. men's gymnastics team won gold was at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – but Orozco hopes that might be about to change.

The men's competition begins in London on July 28.

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