Henry Cejudo had more to wrestle with than a world-class Japanese opponent on his way to an improbable gold medal on Tuesday.
He had to grapple with a childhood that saw his mother illegally emigrate from Mexico to escape a father who constantly ran afoul of the law. It was a childhood that saw him sleeping in the same bed as his siblings as they moved from place to place trying to find a new home.
“You know, it’s truly a dream come true,” Cejudo told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Wednesday. “I’m basically living the American dream. I’m an Olympic gold medalist now. And anything’s possible.”
Cejudo, the 21-year-old power pack, won the 55-kilogram (or 121-pound) weight class with a shocking win over Japan’s Tomohiro Matsunaga in the final match.
And if his personal obstacles weren’t enough, Cejudo was a wrestler who was hardly considered a favorite. He only placed 31st at the World Championships, and struggled in his preliminary matches at Beijing.
But there he was, in tears, wrapping the American flag around his shoulders during a victory lap at China Agriculture University — trying to better serve a country that he says has served him well.
“I always did [think I had a chance at gold], especially [because] the U.S. was down in the medal count,” he said. “I figured if I could wrestle tough, I could put the U.S. that much closer for the gold medal count.”
Cejudo had a difficult start in life.
His parents divorced when he was 4 and his father, Jorge, spent time in prison for drug-related offenses. In fact, Cejudo had only seen his father one more time before he died in Mexico City last year.
That put the onus on his mother, Nelly Rico, to find a better life.
She raised her seven children on her own, traveling from Mexico to the United States as an illegal immigrant and finding minimum-wage jobs from California to New Mexico to Arizona while Cejudo’s siblings often slept two to four to a bed.
“My mom is just a strong woman,” Cejudo told Lauer. “She came to the U.S. about 30 years ago and she‘s been in the U.S. ever since. She raised seven kids by herself. I just look up to her. She’s my hero. She’s just the toughest lady you’ll ever meet.”
Early promiseGrowing up, Henry and brother Angel became fans of professional wrestling. They both entered a youth wrestling program in Phoenix.Angel set the bar by ultimately winning four state wrestling titles.
Henry won his last two state titles while attending Maryvale High School in Phoenix before moving to Colorado to train for the Olympics, giving hope to his entire family.
“I was like one of the youngest [kids], so I was picked on ... had a couple of knuckle sandwiches here and there,” Cejudo said. “But it was all worth it. We take care of each other. My success is their success. That’s the way we were brought up.”
Rico chose not to travel to Beijing for the games, having difficulty coping with the pressure of watching her son wrestle under such bright lights. But soon after winning his gold, Cejudo was able to talk to her by phone — and he found a different, but thrilled mother.
“She was in tears,” he said. “I had never seen my mom cry. She’s that tough, you know what I mean? But she was crying on the phone, telling me she loves me and she misses me. I just can’t wait to go and see her.”
That day is coming. Cejudo said he’ll see her again on Aug. 27.
The road here and ahead
Wrestling experts considered Cejudo to be a gold medal contender in the 2012 or 2016 Olympic Games, prompting coach Kevin Jackson to label him “the future of wrestling.”
But the future soon became the now. His path to gold started with a surprising win over Bulgaria’s Radoslav Velikov, the 2006 World Champion. It was Cejudo’s first victory in an international competition.
He advanced two more rounds to face Matsunaga, who upset 2007 World Champion Besik Kudukhov in the semifinals. In Olympic freestyle wrestling, opponents score points during 3-minute periods — with the first wrestler to win two periods winning the match.
With the first round under his belt, Cejudo performed a move he called “pretty unorthodox,” grabbing an unseen leg, popping his own hips and driving Matsunaga to his back.
That was the winning move that made Cejudo the youngest Olympic wrestling champion in U.S. history — and the inventor of a new label for himself.
“What I told [Jackson] is, I’m the present now,” he told Lauer. “Call me the present. I just won Olympic gold.”