completes a journey from poverty
By GREG BISHOP
BEIJING — The American flag landed on the scorer’s table, launched by a family member with exceptional aim. Henry Cejudo grabbed it from his coach and draped it around his body. He stood there for the longest time, fighting back tears, the son of illegal immigrants wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.
After Cejudo had defeated Tomohiro Matsunaga of Japan to win the 121-pound freestyle wrestling final on Tuesday, and after his family members had celebrated so loudly for so long that security threatened to kick them out, officials hung a gold medal around his neck. He said he might never remove it.
“I might just sleep with this,” Cejudo said. “It changed my life already.”
Fitting, because his is a story about change — for himself, for his family and maybe now for the USA Wrestling program, which trained the 21-year-old Cejudo to become the youngest gold medalist in United States wrestling history.
The gold medal, and his path to it, changed so many lives along the way.
Like his mother’s life. Nelly Rico, who came to the United States from Mexico as an illegal immigrant, raised seven children by herself and left Los Angeles with them in the middle of the night to escape the career criminal who was the father Cejudo never really knew.
Rico does not like flying, so she watched her son’s Olympic performances on a laptop in Colorado Springs. She vomited three times — one for each period her son lost in the three matches leading to the finals.
His right eye bruised and darkened, Cejudo talked of all the hours his mother had worked over the years, as a janitor and a construction worker, anything to put food on the table or to heat the house. He talked about all the times they moved, from Los Angeles to New Mexico to Phoenix to Colorado Springs, each time in search of a better life.
“I wish I could just give her the medal right now,” Cejudo said.
More lives changed, like those of all the people back in Phoenix. Frank Saenz, Cejudo’s coach at Maryvale High School, was the one who raised money for him to enter tournaments by knocking on doors and pleading for donations.
Tracy Greiff, another wrestling coach from the Phoenix area, was the one who had told Cejudo in seventh grade that he would win an Olympic gold. Greiff said he sold hundreds of tickets to travel here and sit in the rowdiest section this venue has seen.
Alonzo Cejudo, one of Henry’s older brothers, was the one who said that next to the birth of his children this ranked as the greatest moment of his life. He was the one who remembered how Rico called Henry her “little golden boy” from the moment of his birth. The one who listened to Angel, Henry’s brother and training partner, talk all week.
Angel told the family he had never seen Henry this strong, this focused, this tough or this prepared.
“Henry knew he was going to take it,” Alonzo said. “He just came to pick up what was already his.”
Angel’s life changed, too, for better and for worse. He was the first Cejudo brother to take to wrestling, the first to become a star. He won four state championships at Maryvale. He had a 150-0 record.
When he went to Colorado Springs, Henry, as always, tagged along. When Henry won more matches, more tournaments and more medals, Angel became his toughest critic and best friend. When Henry wrapped himself in that flag on Tuesday, Angel watched from the stands in tears.
“It’s not, oh, it should have been me,” said Angel, a world-class wrestler in his own right. “Because if it should have been me, I would have been out there. I’m not going to be jealous of my brother.”
More change looms on the horizon, but this time, with a wider reach. Tucked into the Cejudo cheering section was Jake Deitchler, an 18-year-old who wrestled in the Greco-Roman discipline at these Olympics. Deitchler had committed to the University of Minnesota but said on Tuesday that he would instead head to Colorado Springs.
“I want to go down the same path,” Deitchler said. “I want to be where he’s at, gold medal hanging around my neck.”
The victory was what Kevin Jackson, the national freestyle coach and a former gold medalist, had envisioned since Cejudo entered the program at the Olympic Training Center as a high school junior. Instead of going to college, where folk wrestling is the dominant style, Cejudo honed his considerable skills against the best freestyle wrestlers in the world.
The program pays for him to attend college if he wants. In the interim, Angel said, “the benefit is going up against world-class athletes.”
Jackson ranks Cejudo among the best young United States wrestlers ever, alongside names like John Smith, a world champion at 21, and Lee Kemp, a world champion at 22. Jackson hopes Cejudo’s success at these Olympics will prompt promising young wrestlers like Deitchler to follow the same path.
“He is the present, and he is the future,” Jackson said of Cejudo. “He has two more cycles in him. And he hasn’t come close to how good he can be.”
After the match, Jackson lifted Cejudo in the air, a freestyle wrestling tradition. Jackson watched Cejudo afterward and concluded he was the most emotional champion in recent memory.
Maybe that is because Cejudo’s medal meant so much to so many.
His family waited near the tunnel, and after Cejudo received his prize, he made wrestling’s version of the Lambeau Leap — right into the stands. His family members embraced him, tousled his hair and wrapped seven pairs of arms around him.
They all wore or waved American flags, an entire family decked in the Stars and Stripes. A family that started with illegal immigrants and advanced to right here, this moment, their very own gold medalist resting in their lap.
“Only in America,” Cejudo said.