"My mom will definitely be watching over me in Rio, cheering me on, John Orozco tells PEOPLE of his late mother

By Rose Minutaglio
June 23, 2016 02:45 PM

Olympic gymnast John Orozco is determined to make 2016 his best year yet.

A medal-less performance at the 2012 London Olympics and months of grueling rehab for a torn Achilles heel haven’t deterred the 23-year-old from chasing gold in Rio – he’s working harder than ever in preparation for the Games this summer. But the extra hours Orozco puts in at the gym aren’t just for himself. He trains to honor his mother, who died suddenly in 2015.

“It’s a new me,” Orozco tells PEOPLE. “I’ve changed as an athlete and as a person and I hope it shows through my gymnastics, that’s what I’m looking forward to at these next Olympic Games My mom will definitely be watching over me in Rio, cheering me on.”

After a pause, he adds, “I have a different demeanor. I’m a little more positive, easier on myself. It takes the stress away and that allows me to do my job.”

John Orozco
Richard Phibbs

Orozco grew up in the Bronx in New York City and from a young age his mother, Damaris, recognized the potential for greatness in her son. Damaris would drive him to a training facility an hour away in Chappaqua, New York, for the kind of coaching necessary to become an Olympian – and she often did it twice a day.

On trips to meets, the mother and son would sleep in their car – as the family often didn’t have enough money to stay in hotels. The devoted mother also stood up for her son as he endured bullying from friends and schoolmates in their neighborhood.

Orozco says his mother was his number one fan and fully believed in his goal to one day compete in the Olympics. And to win gold.

After a disappointing performance for the frontrunner at the 2012 Olympics – the U.S. men finished fifth in team finals and the favored Orozco failed to medal – he decided to put the past behind him.

“I don’t think about 2012 at all,” he says. “Everything that happened in 2012 happened. I’m so grateful for the experience, and now it’s on to bigger and better things.”

And then the unthinkable happened. Orozco’s rock, his motivation and “best friend” died suddenly in February 2015.

“I knew [competing] would be hard without my mom. I thought to myself, ‘You have to be strong like she was,’ ” says Orozco. “I picked myself up … I thought ‘I can get through this and be okay.’ ”

“I know what I need to do. I took some time to be sad and cry and say, ‘Why me,’ and after those few weeks I think it was necessary to acknowledge that life isn’t fair,” says Orozco. “I believe that you have to pick yourself up however you can and tell yourself these are the cards I was dealt with and I have to make the best of my situation.”

Overcoming nearly insurmountable grief, Orozco decided to continue his gymnastics career in honor of his late mother.

“When I have my moments of weakness, I remember her and her strength and that helps me get through times when I feel weak or when I can’t handle anything,” he says. “I have a rosary that I always travel with … it helps me feel a little closer to her because she had it blessed by the priest at my church in the Bronx. I bring it everywhere because it makes me feel safe and closer to her.

“Whenever I feel like I need some faith I pray with it and ask her for advice … I’ll bring it with me to Rio.”

Orozco starts every morning rehabbing the right Achilles heel he tore in June 2015 (“I competed seven months after getting injured, which is like half the time it usually takes,” he says) at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. From 9:00 a.m. until noon he works on events and half routines. When morning practice is done, he puts on compression pants to take the swelling out of his legs.

For lunch he has a chicken burger, turkey breast and plain lettuce (“I know I need veggies!”) or if he’s short on time, he heads to Chipotle and orders a burrito with brown rice and double chicken.

Afternoon practice starts at 3:30 p.m. and lasts until 6 p.m. Orozco and his teammates take ice baths afterwards.

“I’m training smarter,” he says. “I go into the gym and focus and have a plan and train with quality over quantity.”

When he gets back to his dorm-style room at the training center he sits at his computer and pulls up GarageBand.

“I love to make music… sometimes I’ll start off creating R&B and then all of a sudden it goes into an electronic EDM sound. I also sing on my own tracks,” says Orozco, who is featured in Gym Class Heroes’ video for “The Fighter.”

The elite athlete explains that music – amidst all of the pressure he faces during gymnastics training – is a way for him to relax.

“Maybe one day I’ll go to Broadway!” he jokes. “But for now, Rio is all I see.”

To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin August 5.

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