LAS VEGAS — If anyone needed a change of luck in Vegas, John Orozco was the man.
The three-time junior national champion, a victim of illness and injuries every time the schedule brings him to this small arena just off the Strip, won the Winter Cup Challenge on Saturday night, one of the first key tuneups on the road to the London Olympics.
Orozco, a native of the Bronx who finished fifth at last year's world championships, finished with 180.7 points — 5.5 ahead of Stephen Legendre. Brandon Wynn, the gold medalist on rings at the Pan-Am Games, finished third, followed by reigning national champion Danell Leyva, who fell off parallel bars and high bar to start the evening.
Chris Brooks was fifth, a spot ahead of David Sender, the 2008 national champion who was denied a spot on the Olympic team after being injured during practice the day before trials.
Orozco has had his share of bad luck, most notably a torn right Achilles he suffered during preliminaries at his first senior national championships, in 2010. He has slowly recovered from that and says he's close to being all the way back. Yet it wasn't that turn of bad luck that was on his mind coming into Las Vegas this week.
"I've had the worst luck at this meet the last few years," Orozco said, rehashing the times over the past five years he's either fallen ill or not been able to compete at all in Las Vegas because of injuries. "This meet, I just tried to get over all that and I said, 'Nobody can change it but me.' I said I'm just going to try to change it, and start on a new note."
Orozco was the class of this meet, which began with buzz about the return of 2004 Olympic champion Paul Hamm, but ended without him even in the building. Hamm struggled in the opening round Thursday — his first meet in four years — and wasn't among the top 42 who returned for finals. Hamm's name was not among those called when the 15-man national team was announced — an unsurprising development that won't kill his chances at an Olympic comeback, but will make the road tougher.
"I had a very rough first meet," Hamm said on Twitter. "Not too happy right now. Thanks for all of the support guys."
Fashioning a different kind of comeback story was Sender.
He was the national champion in 2008, virtually guaranteed of a spot on the Olympic team. But during practice on the day before Olympic trials, he landed awkwardly on the mat on his dismount from the high bar, twisted his ankle and had to withdraw from the meet. He guessed that as national champion, he'd probably receive a waiver onto the Olympic team nonetheless, but that call never came.
A year later, he retired to focus on veterinary school at Illinois. All was going well there, but two years later, he decided to un-retire and make another run at the 2012 Olympic team. The memories of the snub haven't vanished completely.
"Obviously, that whole '08 Olympic experience was a fairly momentous occasion in my life, and not necessarily in a good way," Sender said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say things felt a little unfinished after 2008. This is the last chance I'm going to have. And if there's even a little chance I can make the team, I figured I owed it to myself to take this year and go wholeheartedly into that and see if I still have it."
While Sender will have to prove himself all over again, Orozco has clearly set the early standard for the U.S. team in 2012.
While Leyva, the national champ, struggled with some of the new moves he'll try to perfect before the summer, Orozco looked more polished.
He was a picture of straight-lined solidness in almost everything he did. Also, he was one of only three gymnasts to average more than 15 points on pommel horse over two days — more than a mere footnote for a team that traditionally struggles on that event.
"I'm glad I did good," Orozco said. "I just want to keep it consistent and clean for this whole year. Maybe a few upgrades, bits and pieces, but not too many. I just really want to be consistent and clean and somebody who can be depended upon in a team competition."
Ropes and Mats: All the members of last year's world championship team received automatic spots on the U.S. national team. The new members are Wynn, Sender, Paul Ruggeri III, Samuel Mikulak, Jesse Silverstein, Glen Ishino, Adrian de Los Angeles and Christopher Maestas.