After win, Cejudo sees stars, stripes

Henry Cejudo's path of struggle and redemption found him raising high the American flag in Beijing.
Henry Cejudo's path of struggle and redemption found him raising high the American flag in Beijing. (Afp/Getty Images Photo / Toshifumi Kitamura)
By Greg Bishop
New York Times / August 20, 2008
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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 stars and stripes.

After Cejudo had defeated Tomohiro Matsunaga of Japan to win the 121-pound freestyle wrestling final yesterday 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 promised never to 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 US wrestling history.

The gold medal, and his path to it, changed so many lives along the way.

Like his mother's life: Nelly Rico, raised seven children by herself and left Los Angeles with them in the middle of the night to escape the criminal who was the father Cejudo never really knew.

Rico does not like flying, so she watched her son's Olympics on a laptop back 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 mom 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 following Rico in search of a better life.

"I wish I could just give her the medal right now," Cejudo said.

More lives changed, like all the people back in Phoenix: Frank Saenz, Cejudo's coach at Maryvale High School, was the one who raised money for Cejudo to enter tournaments by knocking on doors and pleading for donations.

Tracy Greiff, another wrestling coach from the Phoenix area, was the one who told Cejudo in seventh grade that he would win an Olympic gold medal. Greiff said he sold hundreds of tickets to travel here and sit in the rowdiest section this venue ever has seen.

Alonzo Cejudo, one of Henry's older brothers, the one who said that next to the birth of his children, this ranked as the greatest moment of his life.

"Henry knew he was going to take it," Alonzo said.

"He just came to pick up what was already his."

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